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Archive for July, 2008

This post is part of a series in which I am providing an overview of my healing process from child abuse. The story begins here.

My therapist gave me “homework” every week. That homework was to practice setting boundaries. He told me that setting boundaries was the key to feeling safe, and he was right. Until I learned how to set boundaries, I could not feel safe. I was always at the mercy of whomever I was interacting with.

Setting boundaries was extremely hard for me to do. I learned at a very young age that I had no boundaries. Anyone in my life could take anything he or she wanted from me, and I was powerless to do anything about it. The people around me would lead me around like a puppet. I was so easy to control; it was pathetic.

There were two exceptions to this: (1) I refused to have sexual intercourse before getting married; and (2) I could stand up to keep my child safe. I did allow boys to pressure me into doing more than I wanted to do, but I was resolute in not having intercourse with them. I am not sure where my strength came from, but it was there.

As for my child – I shocked hub and his parents by being able to turn into a complete b@#$% on behalf of my child. For example, they could not figure out how to work the car seat correctly one time and drove my baby home with the car seat not completely fastened. This passive little wife/daughter-in-law went off on them, telling them that they would not be allowed to transport their own son/grandson EVER if they could not be responsible enough to buckle him into the car correctly. (They never made this mistake again. LOL)

It took me a long time to learn how to set boundaries. I thought setting boundaries meant being a b@#$%, and I though that “being a b@#$%” was the worst thing in the world. My therapist assured me that I needed to “act like a b@#$%” in my own head to come even close to being “normal” in setting boundaries.

I finally learned how to do it by recognizing that each time I let another person walk all over me, I was choosing to harm myself rather than say no to an inconsiderate person. As I got better at setting boundaries, I noticed that it was only the people who were used to treating my badly who had a problem with it. Those who had no desire to “use” me thought it was great.

I have gotten much better about setting boundaries, but I still flounder from time to time, especially in times in which I am feeling vulnerable. Also, it is much harder for me to set boundaries with family members, and that is where I need the boundaries the most.

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Photo credit: Rosanne Mooney

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This post is part of a series in which I am providing an overview of my healing process from child abuse. The story begins here.

Most of my most traumatizing memories did not come back all at one time. Instead, I would remember part of a particularly traumatizing incident. After I healed my emotional wounds from what I remembered, I could recover more memories about the same incident. The supplemental memories might come a couple of days later. However, for my most traumatizing memories, it might be months before I revisited that particular incident.

As an example, I am going to share details of a particularly traumatizing incident, so please skip over the triggering information noted below if you are in a bad place.

+++++++++ sexual abuse triggers ++++++++++++++

I was two years old, and my sister had been born recently. I saw the look in my mother’s eyes and knew that more abuse was coming. I fought with all that I had, but neither my father nor my grandmother saw anything but a cranky toddler having a temper tantrum. First, my mother performed oral sex on me, which she had done numerous times before. Then, she forced me to perform oral sex on her for the first time.

++++++++++++ end triggers +++++++++++++++

This memory was so traumatizing that I recovered it in pieces. The first memory involved the facts of what happened as viewed from the ceiling. It took me a long time to heal from that first memory. Later, other pieces came to me from different perspectives. One time, the focus was on the rage I felt and how hard it was to swallow that rage because I knew that it was not safe to express it. Another time, the focus was on the despair. Another time, I recovered the sense of this happening to me, not a girl who looked like me that I was viewing from the ceiling. This involved my five senses, including how terrible it smelled.

All of these memories were of the same event, but they were different perspectives of the same event. I had to heal each part in order to heal fully from that one incident. Now that I have faced and healed the memory from the various perspectives, the memory is only one memory in my head, just like any other memory.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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This post is part of a series in which I am providing an overview of my healing process from child abuse. The story begins here.

When I first started having flashbacks, I would have them one at a time. Believe me, one memory at a time was more than I could handle most of the time. After I recovered a memory, I would deal with the punch of the emotions for days afterward.

As I continued to heal, I developed several coping strategies that helped me manage the pain. As I moved through different layers of healing, I was able to use the coping strategies that I had used to get through other layers of healing. So, as I faced my most challenging memories, I went into them “armed” with the ability to survive them. I grew more confident that I would get through the current layer of memories because I had previously survived and healed from other layers of memories.

As I continued to heal, the pace of healing picked up. Instead of dealing with one memory for days or weeks, I would sometimes have a “montage” of memories – flashes of memories released that had a similar theme.

For example, I recovered three memories in one night. In one, my mother was abusing me in our family van. We had one of those “hippie vans” with the curtains in the windows. She had pulled to the side of the road and harmed me. I never saw it coming. I had a second memory of my mother abusing me at my grandmother’s beach house in the storage unit for the beach stuff. I always remembered being phobic of one of the three doors. This memory answered the question of why. And then there was a third memory of a similar theme – being abused in a place where I thought I was safe.

All three of the memories carried the same feelings of betrayal and removal of safety in situations in which I thought I was safe. I was able to work through and heal the emotions involved in all of these situations at one time because they all had to do with the same issues.

My therapist told me that it is not necessary to remember every incident of abuse. I needed to remember enough in order to heal the resulting pain. Sometimes a cluster of memories like this is enough information to heal the pain. I did not have to relive each memory – I just needed to know enough to understand what I was healing.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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This post is part of a series in which I am providing an overview of my healing process from child abuse. The story begins here.

When I entered into therapy, I thought that the mother-daughter sexual abuse was the only form of abuse that I had suffered. It was very difficult to come to terms with having suffered from this form of abuse, but I took solace in “knowing” that at least I had never been abused by, much less penetrated by, a man.

After I had completed a lot of healing work on the mother-daughter sexual abuse, I had another flashback. This one was of other women sexually abusing me. This threw me into a tailspin. I thought that only my mother had abused me, and I thought that this tied into her mental illness. (My therapist is convinced that she is schizophrenic based upon the symptoms I told him about.) What did it mean that other women hurt me, too? Did my mother know about it? Did she enable it? Was the fact that I was the common denominator proof that this was somehow my fault?

As I came to terms with having been abused by more than just my mother, I started recovering memories of being abused by S & L, my most sadistic abusers. They were a married couple, and our family spent lots of time at their house. Those memories at first only involved S (the wife). None of them involved her sexually abusing me directly, but there was a lot of sadistic torture, including being forced to kill a kitten.

Next came the memories of S forcing me to do sexual things with my younger sister. The first memory just about broke me. I wanted to die right then and there because I believed this meant that I was one of my sister’s abusers. Fortunately, the memories also revealed that my sister was forced to do things to me, too, and I certainly did not hold her responsible for those actions.

Then came the ritual abuse memories. I did not know exactly what to do with them. They were so “out there” that I feared that nobody would believe me. Heck, compared to them, even the mother-daughter sexual abuse sounded more believable. Those memories were very hard to wrap my mind around.

Finally, I recovered the memories of being sexually abused by men. The only thing I had held onto throughout 18 months of therapy was that I had been spared vaginal rape. My first sickening awareness that even that had not been spared threw me into such a deep depression that I did not know if I could survive it. Accepting this truth was the last piece I needed in order to integrate from dissociative identity disorder (DID). I have written about that experience extensively here.

I do not know why I recovered the memories in the order that I did. I recovered more after this, but those were the big pieces. For the most part, I seemed to recover them roughly chronologically, while I know other people who recovered the least traumatizing memories first and saved the most traumatizing for last. I guess we recover our memories in the way that seems best for our own healing.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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This post is part of a series in which I am providing an overview of my healing process from child abuse. The story begins here.

My first six months of therapy were intense, to say the least. To this day, my therapist (T) will marvel about how I covered a few years worth of therapy in such a short period of time. I was like a runaway freight train. I decided that if I was going to go through this painful healing process, then I was going to give it all I had and get it over with as quickly as possible.

I had weekly therapy sessions, but they were really more of a check-in and reassurance than anything else. I was doing most of the work on my own at home. I have read many stories of DID patients who need the T to facilitate communication among the alter parts and who recover memories in his presence. That was not my experience.

I recovered a new memory just about every night. When I was in that in-between state of awake and asleep, I could feel the pull to recover another memory. I would willingly follow that pull and explore what I needed to remember.

What I had read and heard about flashbacks was a bit different from what I experienced. I had heard that many veterans who saw the opening scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan had flashbacks in which they thought they were back in the war again. So, my expectation was that I would believe that I was a child being harmed again. That’s not what it was like.

Instead, I experienced what Judith Herman calls a “dual reality” in her book Trauma and Recovery. Yes, a part of myself was reliving the trauma. However, another part of myself was completely aware that I was lying safely in my bed, and I used this to my advantage. As I would experience a flashback, I would tell myself that I already survived the abuse, so I can survive the memory. Sometimes I would play a silly song in my head to calm myself down.

I learned that I could stop and rewind a memory as long as I was truthful with myself about being willing to revisit the memory the next night. Some memories were so traumatizing that I had to return to them several times before I could get through them.

While I had a flashback, the details were unbelievably vivid, as if I really was back in that time and place again. However, in the morning, they would be just like any other memory that I could retrieve at will but were no longer vivid.

Each memory unleashed intense emotions. That is what I had the hardest time dealing with. Recovering the memories was actually “fun” at times because the pieces of my life started falling into place. It was like uncovering my own mystery. I was okay with having the information – it was the emotions that kicked my tail.

After recovering my first memory, I stayed in a very bad place emotionally for six straight weeks. Then, one day the clouds parted, and I felt really good. I felt like I could breathe again, and I got a taste of what life could be like without being in pain. This reprieve only lasted for a few hours, but it gave me the hope of what my life could be like after I dealt with the pain of my past.

After six months, my healing process blessedly slowed down, and my therapist recommended that we cut back to biweekly sessions. I took a lot of pride in recognizing that I had done an enormous amount of healing work and built up the confidence that I really was going to get through this.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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This post is part of a series in which I am providing an overview of my healing process from child abuse. The story begins here.

When I decided to enter into therapy, I did not have a clue about how to find a therapist. I was also trying to think of a way to enter into therapy without my husband finding out. I did not want him to know that I was not the virgin I had always represented myself as being.

I met with my Stephen minister again, and she handed me a phone number for a therapist (T) that our pastor had recommended. I found out later that the pastor had no clue who it was for or what the situation was about. This lady simply asked if he knew a good therapist, and he passed along this name.

I was extremely nervous, but I called the number and left a message. The T called me back within a few hours, and I screened him on the phone. I asked if he had ever counseled anyone who had been sexually abused by her mother, and he surprised me by saying yes! We set up an initial meeting.

The first meeting was pretty much him telling me his credentials (degree in psychology from a prestigious university and over 20 years of experience working as a psychologist). I did not have much to tell him yet because I really did not remember much yet myself. However, I did share that I was leaving the next day to see my mother-abuser for Christmas.

He told me that I needed to cut off all personal contact with her for a few months during the early months of therapy. I looked at him like he had two heads. I had no awareness that not having my mother in my life was an option. He was very clear that, if I wanted to heal, I had to set boundaries so that I would feel safe. If she was still calling and visiting, then that was not going to happen. I was scared but agreed.

I did have that conversation with my mother. I said that I was going into therapy to deal with childhood issues and that my T recommended cutting off personal contact with all family members (which was a lie) but that we could still email each other. She was surprisingly supportive.

This still left telling hub about the therapy. Hub came with me a few days later to visit with my grandparents for Christmas. Before we left, my grandparents gave me a check for $1,000. They had never done anything like this before, so it had never crossed my mind that they would give me such a generous check. When we left, hub starting talking about what we could do with that money. This was my segue into wanting to go into therapy and why.

I cried after all of this was over. I knew that somebody was looking out for me. Entering into therapy seemed like such a huge hurdle, and yet every piece of it, including the funding, fell into my lap. As frightened as I was, I knew that somebody somewhere was looking out for me and was guiding me toward finally healing from my pain.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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This post is part of a series in which I am providing an overview of my healing process from child abuse. The story begins here.

After I had my first flashback, I decided not to seek out therapy for three reasons:

  1. I was in the process of adopting a second child and feared that being in therapy would prevent me from adopting again.
  2. I did not want hub to know that I had been sexually abused, and he was the only breadwinner in our family to pay for therapy.
  3. I did not think a therapist would believe me about a mother sexually abusing a child, so I feared I would be labeled as “crazy.”

I decided that I would just heal myself instead.

I went online and found a wonderful resource called the Survivor to Thriver manual. The manual provides 21 steps to heal from any form of child abuse. I got annoyed because alcoholics only have 12 steps to cover, so why did I have to do so many??

I was okay with the first two steps, but step three was to find a good therapist. No way. Not happening. I figured I would just skip that step.

I started going looking for my repressed memories. I wanted to remember so I could get this over with and move on with my life. So, I would do visualizations and go looking for them. I would “see” a long, dark hallway with a bunch of locked wooden doors. I would look for the one with a gold key in it and then open it. That would release a flashback.

I started having flashbacks just about every night. I questioned whether they were real because most were from the view of the ceiling. How could I possibly see the back of my own head? And yet, the details in the memories matched what I remembered about that time period in my life and were verified by pictures in photo albums, such as my mother’s hairstyle and the decorations in my bedroom.

What I did not see coming was the flood of emotion. While I was horrified by the memories, I did not expect to feel intense levels of shame and despair. Suddenly, I could not look people in the eye. I believed that I was a worthless piece of scum who was not worthy of being around another person.

I spent an afternoon with an acquaintance from church who is a really good, loving, and compassionate person. I could not handle the contrast between her goodness and “purity” with my disgusting and loathsome history. The self-loathing got so intense that I found myself on the floor of my bedroom, having a full-fledged panic attack, banging my head against the floor and thinking about the best way to end my life. The only thing holding me back was my love for my son – I could not leave him that way.

Finally, it hit me that anything was better than being in this place. Even if it meant that I could not adopt again, and even if it meant that I was diagnosed as “crazy,” anything was better than being in this retched place. So, I decided to listen to the Survivor to Thriver manual and find a therapist.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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