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Archive for July, 2008

Hornet\'s Nest (c) Lynda BernhardtI really hate the word “incest.” I often hear people talk about “rape or incest” as if they are two different things. Yes, I understand that the use of the word “incest” is to specify that the abuser was blood-related to the victim. However, incest is rape in most cases. By separating out the word “incest” from “rape,” it makes incest sound innocuous when it is anything but.

Dictionary.com provides the following definitions for incest:

  • Sexual intercourse between closely related persons.
  • Sexual relations between persons who are so closely related that their marriage is illegal or forbidden by custom.
  • Sexual intercourse between persons too closely related to marry (as between a parent and a child).

There are other definitions provided as well. None of them include that the sexual contact is by force.

I did not enter into a consensual sexual relationship with my mother as a toddler. She raped me. I have been raped by both men and women, so I am in a position to say with certainty that the sexual contact forced by both men and women is rape. The sexual abuse is just as horrible and degrading regardless of whether a woman or a man is perpetrating the abuse.

I refuse to allow another person to water down what I experienced by calling what my mother did to me “incest.” If the term “incest” must be included, then call it “incestuous rape” because that is a more accurate term.

The fact that a sexual abuser is blood-related makes the crime worse, not better. It really bothers me that, when the perpetrator is a blood relative, our language seems to downgrade the level of horror involved. “Rape” carries a punch. “Incest” is fodder for bad jokes about the residents of particular Southern states. There was nothing consensual with what I experienced, so I refuse to apply the word “incest” to what I experienced.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Girl by house (c) Lynda BernhardtOne of my regular readers named TabbyCat writes her own blog called Trials and Tribulations. Last week, TabbyCat wrote about a situation in which she made a couple of mistakes with a friend. Both women are pregnant, so misunderstandings are bound to happen. (I joke that my pregnant friends are “slightly insane,” so I give them a lot of latitude because I know that they cannot help reacting to their hormonal filters.)

TabbyCat was beating herself up for making a mistake. TabbyCat said something that her friend “heard” differently than intended. Considering that they are both pregnant and dealing with major changes in their bodies, it is likely that what TabbyCat said came out differently than what she meant and the friend heard what TabbyCat said in the most negative light.

Because TabbyCat is a survivor of child abuse, the problem is compounded. She is “feeling terribly guilty and miserable for something I didn’t even do.” That is her child abuse history compounding the problem.

I relate to this “need to be perfect” all too well. I spent most of my life holding myself to the bar of perfection and then seeing myself as the world’s biggest failure whenever I fell short of the bar. Because I am human, of course I fell short a lot, and I would hate myself for this.

It has taken me a long time to learn at a heart level that I do not need to be perfect. I am precious and deserve to be loved exactly as I am, warts and all. I do not expect my child to be perfect, so why do I expect that of myself?

I do not expect TabbyCat to be perfect, either. I deeply respect and admire her for enduring all that she did in her childhood. I think it is great that she has the courage to reach out in friendship to others – many child abuse survivors have a very hard time doing this. It is okay for her to make a mistake. It is okay for all of us to make a mistake.

There is a line in the movie Cadillac Man that I have tried to embrace for my own life. Robin Williams’ character visits with his mother, who is pressuring him to reconcile with his ex-wife. The son reminds his mother that she never even liked the ex-wife. She says, “So, I ain’t perfect,” in a tone that says she does not give a hoot that she made a mistake in misjudging the ex-wife.

I want to have that same level of self-acceptance. I want to release the expectation that I can live my life without making mistakes. If I never make mistakes, then how will I learn and grow?

I have also found that the people who are truly my friends are okay with me making mistakes. They might call me on a mistake. I apologize, and they forgive me. That dynamic is new to me, too. It sure feels good to know that my relationships are not dependent upon my being perfect.

Related Topic:

Trauma Thursday: Traumatized Child and Compulsive Truth-telling

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Stormy skies (c) Lynda BernhardtAs I shared in my last post, I confronted my mother/abuser about the child abuse without even realizing that I did, and she reacted to the confrontation without realizing that she was. (You will have to read that post for this situation to make any sense.) In my situation, there was no decision made. An alter part took over, and I confronted my mother/abuser about the child abuse in the heat of the moment.

When you work through the healing process from child abuse, you will reach a place in which you must decide whether or not to confront your abuser. There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Some people find it to be very empowering to confront their abuser. Others wind up regretting this decision.

Confronting your abuser is not required in order to heal from child abuse. If it was, then survivors of child abuse would be giving away their power. If the abuser refused to see them or had already died, then the child abuse survivor would be forever unable to heal. Many people have healed from child abuse without even laying eyes on their abusers again. You do not have to confront your abuser in order to heal.

However, you might want to confront your abuser. Many people find confronting their abuser to be incredibly empowering. They are able to look their abuser in the eye and say all of the things that went unsaid throughout childhood. In some cases, they might even receive a sincere apology. (I would not hold my breath for this outcome.)

If you are considering confronting your abuser, think about what you hope to gain through the confrontation. If you need to hear “I’m sorry” in order for the confrontation to make a difference, then you might not want to go through with it. Many abusers are unwilling or unable to take responsibility for their actions. Your abuser might tell you that it was all your fault and not show a bit of remorse. If your goal is to hear an apology, then you might be better off doing your confrontation through visualization so you can control the outcome.

Also, if you choose to confront your abuser, be prepared for the fallout. I know several child abuse survivors whose relationships with other family members were affected by the confrontation. Most abusers have family members who live in denial and expect everyone else to do the same. By “bringing up the past,” you are upsetting the apple cart, and they don’t like that. I have comforted friends who lost other family members they cared about after a confrontation. While they know that this speaks volumes about their relationships with these other people, it still hurt.

I, personally, chose not to confront my abusers. In the case of my mother/abuser, she is mentally ill. My therapist believes that, if I do confront her, she is likely to have a psychotic episode and have to be hospitalized. I do not want to risk the safety of others just to have the confrontation. Also, I do not feel like I need to have one in order to heal. I already did have a confrontation of sorts, but I have been able to release my feelings through visualization, so I feel no need to do it in real life.

That being said, I have set up very firm boundaries, which sort of act as a confrontation. I told my mother that she may not call or visit me. She may only contact me monthly in written form (either through email or a letter). She tried to force me to tell her why on several occasions. I was not ready for a confrontation, so I told her that if she raised the issue again, then I would not communicate with her for three months. That took care of the problem.

Whether or not to confront your abuser is a very personal decision. Some child abuse survivors feel a very strong need to do this while others do not. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer to whether you should confront your abuser. You need to follow what your intuition tells you about what is the best thing for you to do in your situation.

Related Topics:

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Microscopic view (c) Lynda BernhardtWhen I confronted my abuser, I did not even know that I was doing it. That is probably something that only a person with dissociative identity disorder (DID) can understand.

I had turned down three full scholarships to attend the university that my mother/abuser wanted me to attend. It was a prestigious university that her sibling had been unable to get into, so it mattered to my mother/abuser that I go there. My interest was more in the doors that would open up to me by having a degree from this particular school.

In retrospect, I cannot believe that I turned down a free ride to stay financially dependent upon on my mother/abuser for another three years, but I did. She agreed to “be my scholarship” and pay for all of my bills while I attended this school. However, she reneged right in the middle of finals halfway through my education there.

I started receiving past due notices from my car insurance company. I kept forwarding them to my mother/abuser (as per our arrangement), but she did not pay them. I received an insurance cancellation notice right in the middle of finals.

I called my mother to ask WTF? I cannot remember specifically what she said, but it triggered Irate (my “rage alter”). Irate took over as my host personality sat back in horror and amazement. Irate b@#$%ed that woman up one side and down the other, ending it with saying, “You already f#$%ed me as a child. You are NOT going to f#$% me as an adult!!!!!” My mother/abuser hung up on me.

My host personality was a walking doormat. The “me” that most people knew was extremely passive and had a hard time standing up for herself, even in simple situations. The conversation had to have blown my mother/abuser out of the water.

Years later, my mother/abuser wrote a “book” about her life that included this situation. I put the word “book” in quotes because it was nothing more than a bunch of ramblings by an insane woman. That book is Exhibit A in my accusation against anyone who did nothing to intervene at a mentally ill woman parenting two children.

Anyhow, my mother’s account of that day is as follows: I telephoned her out of the blue and “was nasty to her.” She hung up on me. Then, she got out a gun, loaded it, and sat on the stairs debating whether to blow her head off. Ultimately, she decided not to do it.

That is how I found out about this – through reading her insane book. I have since asked her if she remembers why I “was nasty to her,” and she said, “No.”

Clearly, that moment between us was deeply significant. For the first time, I confronted her for all that she did to me in childhood. After I did, she was hit with the guilt and shame of what she did, which is evidenced by her first reaction being to commit suicide.

Ultimately, we both shoved it all back deep down inside again. I stayed angry at my mother/abuser for months and refused to see her. This was right before Christmas. I refused to come home, as did my sister, who was still angry with our mother/abuser for something she pulled on her over Thanksgiving. That was the first Christmas that my mother/abuser spent alone, probably ever.

By February, our mother/abuser came to visit (she owned the townhouse where my sister and I were living), and she “forced” a reconciliation of sorts. My sister and I reacted by taking complete advantage of this. We ran up her credit card like nobody’s business. Then, we went back to denial of what had transpired between us.

Related Topic:

How to Decide Whether to Confront Abuser After Child Abuse

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Plant (c) Lynda BernhardtMany adult survivors of child abuse ask the question of whether the healing process from child abuse has an end. The answer to this question is both yes and no, depending upon your definition of the “end” of the healing process.

A friend gave me an analogy that describes the child abuse healing process well. She compares it to raising a child. Are you ever finished with parenting a child? The answer is both yes and no, depending upon how you define the “end” of parenting. There is an end to changing diapers. There is an end to needing a babysitter. There is an end to being legally responsible for the choices your child makes. There is an end to your child living in your house.

However, is there an end to parenthood? No. For the rest of your life, you are your child’s parent, and your child will continue to need you, just in different ways. Your adult child will not need a diaper change, but she will need your advice about her career or her marriage. He will need you to babysit your grandchildren so he can show his wife some undivided attention. Once you are a parent, you are always a parent. That job has no end: It simply changes.

This is the way that I have come to view the healing process from child abuse. I am past the “diaper phase,” which is what I consider the flashbacks that “pooped” all over my life for three years. I would say that I have reached the teen years now. For the most part, I am independent. I no longer need my therapist. I do not feel the need to talk about my child abuse history on a regular basis. However, as a teenager’s hormones will make him moody at times, I find this about myself. Out of nowhere, I will feel blindsided by residue from the past.

However, even when the residue hits, it is never like it used to be. I no longer have visual flashbacks. When I have emotional flashbacks, I recognize them for what they are and know how to comfort myself through them. I no longer hate myself or feel shame for the actions that others inflicted upon me. So, that chapter of the child abuse healing process is over for me. However, I will spend the rest of my life comforting myself when the residue hits.

As a person who likes a beginning, middle, and end, it was hard for me to accept that healing would never be “over.” However, I have come to appreciate that, as I continue to heal, I continue to grow. That is what life is supposed to be about, anyhow.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Clock tower (c) Lynda BernhardtHappy Fourth of July everyone!! Well, Happy Fourth of July to those of you in the United States. Those of you who are from other countries probably do not give a flip about the United States’ Independence Day. LOL

I have written before about how holidays can be challenging for child abuse survivors. (See the Related Topics below for links.) Unfortunately, for those who grew up in abusive households, the holidays meant being separated from any positive support people and being thrust into being surrounded by abusive and enabling family members. This is one of the reasons why the Christmas holidays are so triggering for me. I am reminded of how isolated and alone I felt as my friends celebrated the holidays with their families, and I was stuck feeling miserable with my family at home. To this day, I find the holidays to be challenging.

Fortunately for me, I have no memories of child abuse that are linked to the Fourth of July, so this is one of those holidays in which I do not have to feel miserable. That is definitely a relief. It feels good (and novel) not to dread a holiday.

I cannot say that I look forward to the Fourth of July, but its coming does not bother me, either – well, other than having to comfort my child as he is awakened multiple times by the sound of fireworks. Gosh, I sound like a cranky old lady, don’t I?

Related Topics:

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(c) Lynda Bernhardt

I am fortunate in never having an issue with substance abuse after child abuse. I have struggled mightily with an eating disorder and wrestled with self-injury. I also battled suicidal urges off and on throughout my teen years. However, for whatever reason, I never turned to substance abuse to self-medicate my pain from child abuse.

I do believe that I would have been vulnerable to substance abuse if I had not been careful to guard myself against this. I still remember how fantastic I felt the first several times that I drank in college. Wow, did it feel good to finally let go of all of my anxiety and my need to be in control. When I drank, I could release all of that tension, and it felt wonderful.

However, I knew that I could not drink unless I was around people I trusted. I did not want anyone raping me while I was drunk. Also, I could sense my vulnerability to becoming dependent upon alcohol and chose to be careful. I refused to let any substance enslave me.

Over on isurvive, my favorite message board for adult survivors of child abuse, there is a forum called Dependence & Compulsion. I used to visit that forum to talk about my issues with an eating disorder and self-injury. At first, I did not even read anything written by people who struggled with substance abuse. I feared that I would have nothing to say because I had not wrestled with that particular issue. However, I soon learned why this site has one forum for all of these issues – they have much more in common than many people realize.

No, I have never been an alcoholic, but I “get” why alcoholics feel the need to drink. It is the same reason that I feel the need to binge eat. While the crutch we lean upon is different, the underlying pain is the same.

This opened up a whole new world for me. I could finally understand why a person would have trouble breaking an addiction to alcohol or drugs, not because I had been there with alcohol or drugs but because I had lived this with food. Of course, the one big difference is that there is no physical withdrawal from food versus a very difficult physical withdrawal from many substances. But the flip side of the coin is that a person can go through life without ever having a substance again. That is not possible with food.

The more that child abuse survivors can appreciate the struggles that they have in common, the better able they will be to help one another along their road to healing. Empathy removes judgment and replaces it with compassion.

Related topic:

Aftereffects of Childhood Abuse: Substance Abuse

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