Archive for May, 2008

Green and red leaves (c) Lynda BernhardtOne frustration that I used to have in healing from child abuse was all of the “shoulds” that people threw my way. I “should” not still be having flashbacks. After all, nobody could have experienced that much abuse. I “should” be feeling anger toward my abusers. I “should” stop feeling shame and, instead, love myself.

You know what? What I “should” have been feeling was irrelevant because, whether I “should” have been feeling those things or not, I was feeling them. That was my reality. To tell me that I “should” or “shouldn’t” feel a certain way only made me feel even more badly about myself than I already did.

So, I decided to remove the word “should” from my vocabulary as it applied to healing from child abuse. What mattered was my reality, not what another person thought my reality “should” be.

I think that people “should” child abuse survivors to death because they want to put us into a box that they can understand. Does it make sense for a person to feel guilty and responsible for an adult raping her as a child? Of course not. And so, because it does not make sense to the other person, the other person wants to “should” us into a place that makes sense to him or her. However, if you read over the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you will see that guilt and shame are hallmarks of the disorder. If we didn’t have the symptoms, then we wouldn’t have the diagnosis, would we?

If you are feeling overwhelmed by other people’s “shoulds,” choose not to listen to them. What matters is what you are facing in this moment, not where you “should” be according to another person. Whatever you are feeling about your child abuse history is normal.

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Plant (c) Lynda BernhardtI was flipping through my latest issue of the TV Guide and saw that a remake of the 1976 made-for-TV movie Sybil will be airing on CBS on Saturday, June 7, at 8:00 p.m. EST. That movie starred Sally Field, and it was pretty interesting. Of course, I saw the movie before I recognized that I had dissociative identity disorder (DID) myself, so I am not sure how I would feel about it today. You can read about the cast for the newer version (including Jessica Lange, Tammy Blanchard, and JoBeth Williams) here.

The TV Guide says that this is a 2008 adaptation of Flora Rheta Schreiber’s nonfiction best seller and describes Sybil as a “shy but volatile young woman with multiple-personality disorder.” Hello – That label went out with the release of DSM-IV in the year 2000. However, in fairness to the movie, Sybil would have been diagnosed with multiple personality disorder (MPD) before DSM IV was published, so I guess I can live with the label. However, I hope the movie explains that the label of MPD is no longer used.

I plan to watch the movie and then blog about my reaction to it. It should be interesting to watch, especially after all of the work I have done to integrate from DID.

I have watched other movies about DID, including The Three Faces of Eve and Voices Within: The Lives of Truddi Chase, which was an adaptation of the excellent book, When Rabbit Howls. What strikes me is the lack of subtlety in switching from one part to another. I know that the actresses probably have little knowledge about DID, but it still irks me because people watch these movies and assume that is what switching is like.

The whole point of switching was to protect the inner child in a covert manner. Throughout my entire life, I can only recall one person noticing me switching, and it really freaked her out.

I was in the high school play as Mrs. Soames in Our Town. In the third act, my character is deceased, so I spent most of the act sitting quietly in a chair, along with others in the “graveyard,” doing nothing. I remember looking to the stage lights (which were only lightly on me – the spotlight was on the living characters) and feeling somewhat trancelike.

Afterward, my friend asked me what I was doing on stage during the third act. I said, “Sitting there.” What did she think I was doing? Cartwheels?

She did not know what to call it or describe it, but what she saw was various parts emerging as I sat there in silence for a long period of time. Nobody else even noticed, but this person was watching me closely and picked up on it.

Other than that one time, nobody ever picked up on me switching, even though I did it for three decades. They might notice that I went from being a doormat to %itchy in a split second, but they just thought they hit a nerve. Nobody ever suspected that I had other parts inside of myself.

So, we will see how this newer cast portrays Sybil. I cannot wait.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Cave (c) Lynda BernhardtI believe it is the book The Courage to Heal that labels the initial stage of healing the “breakthrough crisis.” When I was in the early stages of healing, it helped so much to have a label for what I was going through. Learning that what I was experiencing was a normal part of healing from child abuse helped reassure me that I was not going crazy.

The breakthrough crisis is the most intense phase of healing from child abuse. While other stages of healing can be intense, none was as overwhelming to me as the initial breakthrough crisis. I compare it to the first few months of parenting a newborn baby. While other stages of parenting are equally as challenging, none are quite as exhausting as being up with a baby every few hours, night after night, with no break.

The breakthrough crisis is what you go through when you first begin to heal from child abuse. For me, it kicked off with my first flashback. Up until that point, I had spent several months actively trying to understand what was wrong with me. From the time I had the first flashback, I knew what was wrong, but I also questioned whether I could survive it.

For six straight weeks, I honestly did not know if I had it in me to survive the healing process. Every single second of the day was filled with pain. It felt like my emotions had been bottled up in a pressure cooker and that the lid had been blown off the pressure cooker, exploding powerful emotions all over my life. I was so grateful to find isurvive, my favorite message board for adult survivors of childhood abuse.

And then, after about six weeks of questioning whether I could survive this, the clouds parted, and I suddenly felt good. It was like seeing sunshine after six straight weeks of rain. I felt amazing, and I knew that all of my hard work was worth the effort.

This reprieve only lasted for a few hours, but it was enough to give me the hope of there being an end to the pain. Even though I returned to just as much pain as before, I could hold onto the hope of getting another reprieve.

Just as my therapist said, the reprieves gradually got longer, and the periods of feeling miserable gradually got shorter. Today (five years later), I can generally recover from a trigger within hours, whereas a trigger used to go on for weeks.

If you are in the initial stages of healing and can relate to what I have written about here, what is happening to you is normal. Think of this as being in the early stages of chemotherapy. It is intense and does not feel survivable, but this is how you are pouring the poison out of your spirit. You really are going to be okay.

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Falling apart is beginning to heal

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Dark skies (c) Lynda BernhardtMost people are familiar with at least the concept of a visual flashback. A person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) relives a traumatizing event by “seeing” the event take place again. Fewer are aware that flashbacks come in many other forms, such as emotional flashbacks. I have talked about non-visual flashbacks on my blog, but I would like to address the body memory form of a flashback today.

The brain is not the only part of the body that retains memories of trauma. Every cell of our bodies has the capacity to remember trauma. For example, most people have heard about amputees who continue to feel sensations from the missing limbs. Having a part of the body amputated is traumatizing to the body, and the cells of the body react by having their own form of flashbacks called “body memories.”

If you do not know what a body memory is, then it can be very scary to have one. That used to happen to me a lot. I feared I was going crazy until my therapist explained what was going on.

For example, I would be lying in my bed at night, and I would feel my body being raped. I would not be experiencing a visual flashback at the time. I would just feel the trauma of a rape and not know what to do with it.

Frequently, I would experience body memories after the initial visual flashback. For example, after recovering the memory of an oral rape, I would feel the aftermath in my throat. Or after recovering the visual flashback of an animal rape, I would feel the sensations of that rape in my body.

Body memories can be terrifying, and they make you want to claw your way out of your skin to stop feeling them.

In order to heal from a body memory, you must do the opposite of what you want to do – You need to let your body release the memory. Just like with visual flashbacks, you will only be haunted by them while you fight them. After you release them, your body no longer feels the need to experience them.

Releasing a body memory is not fun. You must surrender to the awful feelings and allow your body to feel really badly for a little while. However, if you talk yourself through them, then they will no longer plague you. Tell yourself that you already survived the abuse, so you can survive the memory. Be loving to your body and tell it that you are sorry that it endured so much abuse.

It helps if you can connect back the source of the memory to the traumatizing event. This gives the body memory a context and helps you move past the need to continue experiencing the body memory.

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Plant (c) Lynda BernhardtOne my readers named Lost Sheep sent me a link to a fascinating article: What is Dissociative Identity Disorder (Formerly Multiple Identity Disorder)? The author(s) have done their homework. This is one of the best overviews I have read about DID from a mental health professional perspective.

In this blog entry, I would like to expound upon what they have said, coming from a perspective of a person who has lived it. My comments correspond with the article’s headings.


I like the description of DID being a child experiencing distance “within” himself. That was definitely true for me. I would “disappear” into myself while the abuse was happening. The rock band Evanescence puts this very well in their song Whisper:

Catch me as I fall
Say you’re here and it’s all over now
Speaking to the atmosphere
No one’s here and I fall into myself – Evanescence

Alters, Personality Parts

I agree that the word “part” is a more appropriate descriptor than “alter.” All of the parts make up the whole. I am glad that they cover animal parts because most people are unaware that parts can be animals, so they freak out when they come into contact with those parts.

Alter Structure

All that the author wrote was fascinating. What I would like to add is that, with severe abuse, you might find the alters in “layers” or “clusters.”

I had six layers of alter parts. Most layers were unaware of other layers, which helped further hide my “secrets” from myself. For example, one layer held the memories of the mother-daughter sexual abuse. Another layer held the memories of the ritual abuse.

If someone endures extreme trauma, she might fragment her inner child into inner children. Each inner child will have protector parts assigned to it to keep it safe. This is to protect the child from having the essence of who she is obliterated. So, for example, I had a part of myself (like my love of the piano) protected by an animal alter part and another protector part. So, the abuser would have to get through both “bodyguards” in order to reach that part of myself. The group would be called a “cluster.”

Hearing Voices

I never “heard voices.” I describe what I experienced as “having loud thoughts” that did not originate from “me.”

Switching or Alter Changes

This is a fear that most “hosts” have – the part that a person with DID sees as “me.” If you invite the other parts out instead of fighting them, it becomes much less scary. All parts are parts of the whole.


Yeah, the stuff in the second paragraph feels freaky until you understand what is going on. My sister used to have days when she “felt short.” That was an alter part. When my wolf alter part would emerge, I could feel the fur and the paws. It can feel bizarre.

That’s all of the comments that I have about the article. It really is a good resource.

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Microscopic view (c) Lynda BernhardtWhen I was going through the healing process, a visual flashback was obvious to me. I was suddenly reliving something traumatic. I would “see” and experience the event happening again while, at the same time, knowing that I was safe in my bed. I did not pick up on non-visual flashbacks quite as quickly. I had them for a long time before I knew what they were.

For example, I would sometimes taste cigarette smoke in my mouth, even though I have never smoked. When I would taste the cigarette smoke, I would feel panicky but not know why. The answer came later when I recovered the memory of my abuser almost smothering me to death. She was punishing my younger sister for some perceived non-compliance by smothering me with a pillow. I did not even bother to fight it because I knew that it would only make things worse. My abuser was so caught up in upsetting my sister that she failed to realize that she took things too far.

From here, the memory moves to the ceiling. I saw her yelling at my limp body, but my body did not respond. She then removed the pillow and checked to see if I was breathing – I wasn’t. She dragged my body to the bathroom and told my sister to go upstairs and get my parents. Meanwhile, she gave me mouth-to-mouth and resuscitated me, all the while telling me that I was not worth going to prison over. She had recently smoked a cigarette, so when I came to, I could taste the cigarette smoke in my mouth and lungs.

She told my parents that she had found me on the floor in the bathroom. She said that I must have slipped and bumped my head on the toilet. I was disoriented and said nothing. My parents told me to be more careful and left my sister and me downstairs to play.

Today, I have been having more emotional flashbacks surrounding this event. I don’t know what has triggered it today. All I know is that I will suddenly start feeling like I cannot breathe, even though I can. Even as I take slow, deep breaths, a part of myself feels as if it is being deprived of air. It is a really weird feeling.

Isn’t post-traumatic stress disorder fun?

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Microscopic view (c) Lynda BernhardtOkay, this is really getting old. Every night, I keep having nightmares. Fortunately, most are not as graphic as the one I posted about recently, but they are disturbing nonetheless.

These dreams are keeping me from feeling rested. I wake up with all of my muscles feeling tense. I can tell that I have been grinding my teeth during the night. (I wear a mouthpiece at night to minimize the damage.) My heart is racing, and I feel really lousy.

Once this happens several nights in a row, I find myself stalling going to bed at night. I check my email one last time and find other ways to dawdle on the computer until another 30 minutes or an hour go by. I am one of those people who needs 8+ hours of sleep a night, so this is not good for me. But I simply dread going back into that dream world again.

The dreams are still related to stuff with my mother. In the dream, I was in a bus being driven by a woman who often appears in my mother-related dreams. She accidentally bumped the bus into one in front of us. She got upset because her mother was on that bus. There was much more to the dream, but those were my symbols narrowing down which aspect of healing upon which my subconscious is focusing.

I wish I could take something to make me stop dreaming, at least for a night or two. I really need some rest.

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Bird flying in dark sky (c) Lynda BernhardtMany people think of recovering memories of child abuse as coming through visual flashbacks. This does happen frequently, particularly for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, that is not the only way that people recover memories. For example, a flashback does not have to be visual. A flashback can come through any of the senses, such as through hearing or sense of smell.

Another way that survivors of child abuse can recover memories is through a sickening awareness of what happened. That happened to me several times. I would often start having flashbacks afterward, but the initial recovery of the memory came through a sickening awareness that I had suffered from some form of abuse.

For example, I lived most of my life with no memory of much of my childhood. I was consciously aware of the comparatively mild emotional abuse but was completely disconnected from the physical and sexual abuse. However, I was fully aware of being “warped in the head” on many levels but not knowing the cause.

I reached a place in which I was ready to face my past, but I did not know what it was. I was aware of having alter parts but not the reason for having them. In desperation, I called my younger sister and asked if she had any memory of me being harmed as a child. She said, “I have always had a bad feeling about mom.”

Immediately, I knew that my mother had sexually abused me. I felt it in the core of my being. I could feel the abuse happening to my body, even though I had no specific memory of any of the abuse at that point. In fact, the first time I told another person, she kept asking me questions like how old I was or how long the abuse went on, and I honestly did not know. I just had this sickening awareness and knew that it was true. My flashbacks as well as my sister’s flashbacks later confirmed it all.

I went through this with accepting the truth that I had been vaginally raped as well. I started having disturbing dreams about having been with other men sexually and feeling deep shame because of it. (My husband is the only man that I have willingly had sex with.) Then it moved on to dreams of being raped. I would comfort myself by saying that I knew that was not true.

Then, I was at a friend’s house. While she was on the phone, I was thumbing through the book Safe Passage by Healing by Chrystine Oksana and found a section called “The Real Unreal.” This section said something about women not believing that they had been raped because they bled when they first had consensual sex. The book went on to say that the hymen regenerates to a certain degree after the trauma stops, so a woman might experience light bleeding when she become sexually active even though she was raped in childhood.

As soon as I read that, I knew my truth. It was a sickening awareness that settled over me as I admitted to myself that I had light staining at best after becoming sexually active. However, I had held onto that light staining as “proof” that I had been spared that form of abuse. I finally had to face that I had not. I later recovered multiple memories through flashbacks, but it all started with a sickening awareness.

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Plant (c) Lynda BernhardtOver on my professional blog, I write about adoption topics. My favorite topics to write about are trauma-related. I have several readers who have adopted traumatized children. They appreciate the insights that I can provide into the way their traumatized children’s minds work.

I have launched a new feature over there this week called “Trauma Tuesday” and “Trauma Thursday.” On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I will always write about trauma-related topics. (I write two blog entries a day on those days.) Many of those topics can be helpful to adult survivors of child abuse as well, so feel free to check them out.

Last week, I wrote a series explaining eating disorders and how to help a traumatized child heal from them. One reader (an adoptive parent of traumatized children) posted the following insightful comment:

Our children came out of foster care, and have never really suffered deprivation…at least like children in orphanages. But they definitely have food issues. I see it as being non-food related. They are very unaware of their own bodies. They talk too loud, crash into things, seem unaware of how to choose clothing for the temperature outdoors. They don’t know when they are tired, they fret over minor injuries, but can’t distinguish real ones. And they eat with no shut off valve. It’s like they can’t read it. It takes lots of time and work, to get them more in tune with their own selves, and that means on every level…emotional, mental, physical. Our children don’t over eat because of fear and trauma, at least directly, but because they have “shut down”, or maybe never “turned on”. My young teens still look to me and ask if what they have on their plate is appropriate, because they struggle to know. They ask before they take seconds, because they now fear misjudging and making themselves sick. I encourage them to wait a few minutes, and “let it settle”. Usually they will decide against the extra portion. – Scrapsbynobody at Other Types Of Eating Disorders And The Adopted Child

There is so much insight in this comment that I thought I would talk about it on this blog as well.

I have struggled with the eating disorder of binge eating for most of my life. I have also struggled with feeling disconnected from my body. In fact, I used to “live” in only a tiny sliver of my head before I started healing from the child abuse. However, I never connected the two issues the way that Scrapsbynobody did in her comment. Reading her comment was a major “aha” moment for me.

I do so many of the things she mentions. I routinely find bruises on my body – sometimes large ones – and have no explanation for where they came from. I don’t think this is about losing time (I am pretty sure I don’t do that anymore) but about not being in my body enough to notice when it is harmed. I routinely ignore my body’s signals to use the bathroom until my bladder truly cannot take another minute. I had to relearn the difference between hunger pangs that signal hunger versus signaling a need for processing emotions.

I am becoming better about staying present, but what she wrote resonated so deeply with me that it drove home how much work I still have to do. Oh, joy.

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Spider webI really do want to move on to other topics on my blog, but apparently I am still working through issues related to the mother-daughter sexual abuse. Oh, joy.

I had a disturbing dream about the mother-daughter sexual abuse that really shook me up. What is most annoying is that I cannot rest when I am having such disturbing dreams. Even though I am getting 8+ hours of sleep each night, I am feeling tired the next day because I awaken feeling so tense after the dreams.

This dream was particularly disturbing. I was an adult, and I was standing in front of my mother nude, and she was also nude. That’s never a good sign. She did things to me, and I tried to like it, but I just couldn’t. Then, I got up and turned my back to her, knowing that she expected me to do things to her, and I really didn’t want to.

She told me to come back to her. Immediately, I got that lightheaded, “floaty” feeling in my head that I used to get all the time when I had contact with her. Then, I was still standing where I was, and she was walking by me (still nude) with a smile on her face. I knew that I had lost time and that my body had done things that I did not want it to do. I felt really repulsed by the whole thing.

I then went immediately into another dream that was too long and involved to get into here, but it involved inner children, their choices, and not being in control of what they do.

I woke up feeling very tense. My muscles were all aching from the tension of my reaction to the dream.

I hate having dreams like that. I know this is just my subconscious’ way of working through the trauma, but it is really frustrating. I already lived this as a child. I lived it again through therapy. At what point do I stop living this trauma?

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Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse

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