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Archive for May, 2008

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.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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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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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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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?

Related Topic:

Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse

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Winding plant (c) Lynda BernhardtMany child abuse survivors feel like they are going in circles as they heal from their pasts. They work hard to deal with an area of abuse and believe that they have healed from it. Then, several months later, they get bowled over by seemingly the same feelings and question what their hard work was all about if they are now in the same place again. I felt the same way as Mother’s Day approached this year.

The book The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis provides a wonderful explanation for this phenomenon. They call the healing process a spiral. While it appears that you are going around in circles, you are always moving upward. So, when you circle back around to an area of pain that you thought you healed, you are simply healing it at a deeper level.

Think about how a wound heals. Often it looks terrible from the top. However, lots of healing work is going on beneath the surface of the wound, which is making the wound less shallow. Sometimes the healing can sneak up on you because you could not see all of the healing that was going on in the deeper layers of tissue.

Healing from child abuse is the same way. Even though it might feel that way, you are not going around in circles. You are healing your wounds in a deeper way each time you cycle back around. You are always moving forward and upward as you heal.

Another metaphor I like is of raising a child. Once you are a parent, you are never finished with parenting. However, the diaper days do have an end and your baby will eventually sleep through the night. You think that parenting will be easy once these milestones are reached, but then you have a toddler who is walking around and getting into everything. You think that parenting will be easy once the child is old enough to reason with, but then you have a child who finds creative ways to get into trouble in ways far too advanced for a toddler to think through … and so it goes.

You are never finished with healing, but you do finish with different areas of healing along the way. For example, I have not had a flashback in a very long time, and I used to have them nightly. (I equate flashbacks with the diaper days.) However, as you have seen from reading my blog over the past week, I am still healing. Perhaps I have reached the teen years now.

Even though it is hard, I am always growing and changing, and I am always becoming more emotionally healthy. Even when I am in deep pain again, I am moving toward deeper health.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Cave (c) Lynda BernhardtI finally talked with some off-line friends about how I have been feeling lately. They helped me to put it all in perspective.

One friend suggested that perhaps I have already dealt with it all, but Mother’s Day is just a triggering time of year for me. She compared it to the anniversary of a loved one’s death – even after you fully grieve the loss of the loved one, you are still going to think about that person and feel sad when that date rolls around.

Perhaps the coming the Mother’s Day triggers sadness in me that is just a normal part of the grieving process. This is not an indication that I have not completed the healing work but just a normal part of grieving the mother that I needed but never had. I think my friend is right because I have felt much, much better since we talked.

It also helped to have two off-line friends who did not judge me for not calling my mother while she was in the hospital. It helped that they were supportive of me in making my own decisions about the role my mother has in my life, which is nil.

I sometimes feel pressured to reconcile with my mother, and at other times, I feel pressured to end the limited contact that I continue through allowing her to write me a monthly letter. (I also send her presents for her birthday, etc.) I need to be the one to make the decisions about what is right for me. Nobody else can do that for me.

Related Topic:

Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Tree in swamp (c) Lynda BernhardtMy mother/abuser is out of the hospital now. The doctors could not find anything wrong with her. That doesn’t surprise me. She will probably outlive us all.

Apparently, she was disappointed that I did not call her while she was in the hospital. I was honestly surprised by this. Should she have had that expectation? I have not spoken to her in 4-1/2 years, so why would she expect that this would change now? I guess a daughter is “supposed” to telephone her mother when she is hospitalized, so she expected that this would be that TV-movie-of-the-week transforming moment in our relationship??

I did not fail to call her as a way to hurt her. Honestly, it never crossed my mind to call her. Is that bad? I wouldn’t have known how to reach her, anyhow. I think she sent me her cell phone number, but I am not sure if I kept it. I have her home phone number, but she obviously was not there. I did not know the name of the hospital where she was staying. Yes, I could have gotten this information from my sister, but I didn’t want it.

I don’t want to think about her at all, and it is really bugging me that her hospitalization and Mother’s Day have made that impossible to do. I am not staying away from her to hurt her; I am doing it to protect myself. I don’t like the person I became when I was around her. I felt so much anger, and I stayed so dissociated that I lost large blocks of time around her. I would be aware that I just spent four hours with her but unable to share anything that we talked about. It was all a blank because I was not “there.” My body was there, but my spirit/consciousness was somewhere else.

I am really bothered by how much this is upsetting me. I feel the need to cry a lot, and sometimes I allow myself to cry. Honestly, I have been so friggin’ busy over the past two weeks that I have not had the time to cry very often. I don’t even know what I am crying over, only that my heart feels heavy. I don’t miss her. I don’t want her in my life. I want to cut this connection, but I don’t know how. I thought I had done it, but obviously I haven’t.

In other forms of rape, the victim does not have pressure from others to continue a relationship with the perpetrator. You do not have to invite your stranger rapist to Thanksgiving dinner, and nobody judges you for this choice. What my mother did was so much worse (and destructive) than a stranger rape, so why is there pressure to maintain a connection?

Nobody in my life is pressuring me to connect with her. This is a pressure that is coming from inside, but I don’t know from where or why. I don’t know if this is more self-hate that needs healing or what. I just want to stop thinking about her at all. How do I do that?

Related Topic:

Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Shelter along seashore (c) Lynda BernhardtYesterday, I talked about the fact that I am struggling right now with my feelings toward my mother. She went into the hospital right before Mother’s Day, so I got a double-whammy of emotion that I don’t know what to do with.

I don’t want to love her. Loving her brought me an enormous amount of pain. She betrayed me in a way that cut so much deeper than any of my other abusers. She was my mother, and she was the one person in the world who was supposed to be there for me – to nurture me and protect me. She was the one who was supposed to make me feel precious and set the tone for all future relationships. She failed me so miserably that I cannot/do not even want to go there right now.

I don’t want to hate her. I spent so many years nursing my bitterness toward her, but it never hurt her – only me. I want to be free from the hatred, and I deserve to be freed from it.

I don’t want her to influence the direction of my life. I don’t want to make decisions to please her or to p@$$ her off. I just want to do what is right for me, regardless of how it affects her.

The only way that I have found to do this is to kill all of my feelings toward her – the love and the hate. I have worked so hard to remove any feeling about her whatsoever – to become numb to her. I don’t want to care about her at all – no love, no hate, no nothing.

I thought I had done this, so why I am sitting on the floor bawling my eyes out over her? I have no answer for this? Does this mean that I have been deluding myself about my nonchalance toward her? Do I still love her? Do I still hate her? Do I still feel both?

I wish I had a way to take a hatchet to that part of myself and completely sever it off. I feel like the dog caught in a bear trap that tries to chew its own paw off to find freedom from the trap. How do I do that?

There is no point in loving her. There is no point in hating her. Apparently, my efforts to numb myself to her have not worked, and now I am so confused about what I feel toward her. All I know is that it hurts, and I wish I had a way to make that stop. How do I find a way to end the lifelong legacy of pain that she has left me?

Related Topic:

Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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