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Archive for November, 2008

On my blog entry entitled Unmet Needs after Child Abuse: Age Twelve to Eighteen, a reader posted the following comment:

Though I only remember that time vaguely, I’ve read my journal entries from when I was younger and I know that somewhere around 12-14 years of age I struggled with my identity. I actually wrote in my diary that “I don’t know who I am.” I spent so much time pretending that I was someone else, because I simply didn’t know how to live as myself. Some were TV, or film, or book characters, some were characters I invented myself (and later turned out to be alters). I changed personas constantly, if only inside my head, and by pretending to be someone else I could get through each day. This led to years of internal chaos and depression, because I realized that I had no idea who I really was.

Sometimes I still feel like only a fragment of a person. Like I’m not entirely real. Maybe I’m not. – Midge

I can relate to this comment so deeply. In fact, before I integrated my host personality into my core, I used to be plagued by nightmares that I had doll skin. I would push a pin through my leg and discover that I was as hollow inside as a doll is. I would wake up trembling after those nightmares.

People with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) typically create a “host personality” who has no memory of any of the abuse. The host is created to be the innocent one who can interact with the world as if none of the abuse ever happened because, as far as the host personality is concerned, it didn’t. Having a host personality also gives an abused child the illusion of having a part of herself that was spared the abuse.

Most DID patients who enter into therapy do so from the perspective of the host personality. The host personality becomes terrified as the amnestic barriers begin to melt, bringing some of the memories of abuse into the host personality’s awareness. The host personality comes to realize just how much of her life she has “missed” as she is forced to recognize that huge chunks of her past are missing from her memory bank.

The host personality feels small because it is small compared to the rest of your spirit. Most of your spirit is fully aware of all of the abuses that you suffered. The realization that “you” are merely an alter part is absolutely terrifying for DID patients. It sure was for me.

The good news is that, while the host personality is a part of who you are, she is a very small part of you. Who you are is the sum total of all of your parts and more. When you choose to integrate your host personality back into your core, you stop losing time. (Huge, huge perk!!) You also realize that you survived the abuse and that you are okay. You don’t need to keep a part of yourself separate and pretend like the abuse never happened. You can have full awareness of all that you endured as a child and still be okay – even more than okay.

Becoming aware that you, as the host personality, are just a tiny part of a large spirit is a huge step toward integration and healing. Who you are is so much deeper and richer than you ever imagined.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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On my blog entry entitled Unmet Needs after Child Abuse: Age Six to Twelve, a reader posted the following comment:

I’ve subconsciously taken on mannerisms and speech patterns (including regional accents) of other people, once I’ve been around them long enough to consider them friends. Long ago I recognized this about myself, but had no idea why or where it came from, just that it happened. Now, it makes sense! – Midge

This is a common aftereffect of child abuse called mirroring.

Abused children do not know how to interact well with other people. Their abusers (obviously) do not socialize them well. In fact, it is in the abuser’s interest if his victim does not know how to make friends. An isolated victim is much less likely to tell about the abuse.

Human beings are social creatures by nature. Because the abused child’s ability to learn how to socialize well with other children was stunted, many abused children learn how to “mirror” the behaviors and mannerisms of other children whom they want to befriend. As the saying goes, “Birds of a feather flock together.” By mirroring other children, the child seems more like those children, making those children much more likely to bring the abused child into the fold.

I, personally, did not have the first clue about how to make a friend. I spent most of seventh and eighth grade sitting alone at lunch because I did not know how to make a friend. In ninth grade, a “new girl” moved to my school, and she became popular (as in well-liked, not in the snobby way) instantly. I began mirroring her behaviors and, voila, I suddenly started having friends.

Fortunately, this girl was a wonderful role model. I still hold onto many of the traits I learned from her to this day. Now that I know how to befriend others, I generally look for the person who is feeling left out and use the skills I learned from this girl to make the other person feel more comfortable. So, mirroring is not necessarily a bad thing.

The problem is when you become like a chameleon – when you only reflect the personalities of the people you spend time with and lose who you are in the process. Or, worse, you never even knew who that person was to begin with.

I used to believe that healing from the child abuse was about turning myself into a new person. I have come to recognize that healing is really about discovering who I have always been. Beneath all of the pain, shame, and mirroring has always been a unique personality that is all mine. Learning how to stop viewing myself through the distorted lens of my abusers opened me up to discovering myself.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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My second most popular blog entry on my blog is one entitled Orgasm during Rape or Other Form of Sexual Abuse. That blog entry has quite a few comments posted by child abuse survivors who experienced orgasms while they were being raped or sexually abused.

Last week, a reader posted the following question:

How are you all dealing with the conflicting emotions? Everything I see written here, practically, screams out that you all loved what was happening at the time, and mostly feel bad because society says it’s bad. I’m asking you all, because you are the only ones that really know, is it bad?

I think this is a legitimate question that needs to be answered.

The short answer is no, I did not “enjoy” the orgasms during sexual abuse. Most of mine happened when my mother was orally raping me. I experimented with similar sexual contact consensually with a boyfriend. While my body achieved an orgasm very quickly, it made my head feel like it was going to explode, and I felt a very strong desire to harm myself. That is not “enjoying” an orgasm.

When people who were never sexually abused experience orgasms, they feel good. They feel a release of tension and feel peaceful afterward. This is not the case with a person who has been sexually abused. After the orgasm happens, the sexual abuse survivor feels sick to her stomach. She feels deep shame and hatred toward her body.

When a child who is being sexually abused “wants” an orgasm, it is kind of like looking for the least painful form of abuse to experience in the moment. The child feels shame, terror, and self-loathing as the sexual abuse is happening. The orgasm is a temporary reprieve from those feelings, but then those feelings come crashing down immediately afterward in spades.

After the orgasm, the child is not lying in his bed feeling good about himself. All does not feel right with the world. The child feels deep shame – the shame from the abuse and then the shame from “enjoying” part of the abuse. It causes the child to question whether she really wanted the abuse after all. She knows that she didn’t, but her body reacted to it, so then maybe she did??

And then orgasms and shame get intertwined in the abused child’s head. The child grows into an adult who cannot have a fulfilling consensual sexual relationship because pleasure and pain are still intertwined. She hates her body for having orgasms, and then she hates her body if she doesn’t have them. Every sexual encounter becomes a challenge because it sets her up for more self-loathing.

And then the sexual abuse survivor finds that she is only able to achieve an orgasm if she reenacts the sexual abuse, either physically or in her head. Straight sex cannot achieve an orgasm, but degradation during sex can. Discovering that you cannot achieve an orgasm during sex unless you feel degraded only adds fuel to the fire.

There is nothing positive about a child experiencing an orgasm during rape or sexual abuse. It only further complicates the child’s life.

Related Topic:

Trauma Tuesday: Orgasms during Rape and Sexual Abuse

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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As many of you know, I have written quite a few articles about healing from child abuse for eHow.com. One of those articles is entitled How to Stop Dissociation After Childhood Abuse. A reader wrote me the following question in the comments:

How do I rebuild a relationship with my daughter after all the abuse she witnessed an endured in her life? I was a victim of sexual abuse when I was a child and had a turbulent upraising with alcoholic Mother and a strict and physically abusive step father. I ran away from home as a teenager and became pregnant at 16. I went on to marry the man who was the father to my daughter. He turned out to be very physically, mentally and emotionally abusive. I in turn took out my anger on my daughter, I would snap at her over small things like her getting upset over her hair being brushed. I would get very impatient and hit her with the brush over her head and yell at her. I would apologize to her but it wasn’t enough to take the look out of her eyes. The anger I took out on her is unbelievable, now that she is 21yrs old she holds so much anger towards me. I can’t go back and change these events. – mariannegagne

I told mariannegagne that I would post her question here and solicit suggestions from all of you. I will share my own advice to her in this blog entry. I would appreciate everyone being respectful to her in your responses, even if you find her message to be triggering in any way.

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To mariannegagne,

I am so sorry that you know the pain of being abused as a child. As you have experienced yourself, child abuse comes with a lot of anger. It was not safe for you to vent your anger toward the people who caused it. Different abuse survivors react in different ways. Unfortunately, you chose to vent your anger on an innocent child. It is no wonder that she grew into an adult who resents you for it. She did not deserve your anger any more than you deserved the sexual abuse.

The big difference between you and your daughter’s father is that it sounds like you have remorse for the way that you treated your daughter. You have apologized, but she probably has a hard time believing your apologies because this was not a one-time thing – it was a pattern.

If you want to repair your relationship with your daughter, then you must first understand how deeply your actions wounded her. She needs you to “get it.” She needs you to understand how painful it was to be raised by an abusive father, and she needs you to apologize for not removing her from the abusive situation. She also needs you to understand how painful it was that her “good parent” vented anger onto her that she did not deserve. She was just a little girl who wanted to be loved, and both parents used her as a place to dump out all of their own unresolved emotions. That was not fair to her. She was just a little kid. Until you appreciate the gravity of the damage you inflicted upon her, your apologies are going to ring hollow to her.

Next, she needs you to take responsibility for the damage that you did to her. Every time you took out your anger on her, you damaged her. That damage needs to be repaired. Have you considered offering to pay for her to see a therapist?

Your daughter also needs you to heal yourself. Until you heal your own emotional wounds, you are going to look for other, less healthy, ways to deal with the pain. Now that your daughter is an adult, she doesn’t have to stick around and be the recipient of this. One of the biggest gifts you can give your daughter is an emotionally healthy mother.

If you will commit to dealing with your own issues and take responsibility for the damage that you did to your daughter, then you will have laid the foundation for building a positive relationship with her. The rest is up to her.

One more thing – You will eventually need to forgive yourself for the choices that you made throughout your life. So many of your choices were driven by your own pain. No, you cannot change your choices from the past, but you have the power to make better choices from now forward. If you will transform yourself into a healthier person, your daughter will be much more likely to want you in her life again.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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On my blog entry entitled Unmet Needs after Child Abuse: Birth to Age One, a reader posted the following comment:

This is where it begins: at the very beginning. These unmet needs damaged us from the moment we were born. How do you undo damage that began that early? How do you heal pain that began from the moment you entered this world? How do you counter a lesson that was instilled from birth? The lesson that I am worthless was the first one I learned. It was reinforced over and over, moment by moment. It was communicated by word, by look, by action, by lack of action and neglect. How do you unlearn a belief like that?? What do you do with a pain that runs that deep?? Sometimes it seems like an insurmountable task. Sometimes it seems impossible and hopeless. But… I carry on.

I, too, have wrestled with these questions. My abuse began at the hand of my own mother. When you were betrayed by the first person you ever loved (from when you were still in the womb), how do you ever move past that? How do you ever learn to love and trust after that kind of betrayal?

If being abused was the very beginning of my existence, then I believe the answer would be that I could not move past it. If we assume that we are born into this world as empty slates, and then all of the messages that were written on that empty slate were that I was worthless, then how would it be possible for me ever to move past this?

And yet, children are not born as empty slates. They exhibit their own personalities from birth forward, and no amount of parenting rights or wrongs can change who the child was meant to be. Despite being silenced as a child, I grew into a chatty adult. Nothing that any of my abusers ever did to me had the power to change who I was at my core.

Why not?

I believe the answer is that birth is not the beginning of who we are. I believe that we exist before we are born and that we continue to exist after we die. In short, I believe in reincarnation.

I believe that, when we are between physical lifetimes, we are basking in unending love. I believe that my spirit was filled with this deep love when it entered into the body growing in my mother’s womb. I believe this explains how, after a childhood filled with severe abuse, I could still be a compassionate child and grow into a compassionate adult.

I also believe that we have access to this unending love throughout our lifetimes. I do this through meditation. I use yoga to help silence my mind, and then I use meditation so my spirit can tap back into that unending source of love. I no longer believe that the love available to me on this earth is limited. I can access deep, rich love anytime I need it.

I also feel this unending love all around me – in the beautiful fall foliage, in the colors of the sky as the sun sets, and in the beauty of the water lilies on the pond near my house. We are surrounded by love if we know where to look for it. By being surrounded by love, I am never alone.

My abusers tried to break me, but they failed. They might have shaped much of who I thought I was, but, ultimately, who I am is timeless and cannot be stunted by the evil actions of others. Who I am transcends the abuse and even this lifetime. This is how I know that I can meet those unmet needs.

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Photo credit: Rosanne Mooney

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I am working through a series on unmet needs. The series begins here. I am using the book Beyond Integration: One Multiple’s Journey (Norton Professional Books) by Doris Bryant and Judy Kessler as a guide because the authors did a wonderful job in identifying the unmet needs that result from abuse during each stage of development. All identified unmet needs and reactions of child abuse survivors are from Chapter Four: Lost Developmental Stages.

Authors Bryant and Kessler identified the following four needs for children from ages twelve to eighteen:

  • Ego identity
  • Belonging to a group
  • Separating from home
  • Developing sexually

Personally, I had no issues with separating from home, at least physically. I was dependent financially, but I knew that I was barking up the wrong tree to expect any sort of emotional support from either parent. I learned how to make friends by mirroring who they were and becoming what they wanted me to be, which, of course, got in the way of my ego identity. My identity was always a reflection of whoever I was around.

The authors identify the following resulting outcomes:

  • Anxiety
  • Lack of identity or several identities among various social groups
  • Continued emotional enmeshment with abusers
  • Extreme fluctuations in behavior or moods or compulsive conformity and overachievement
  • Drug use
  • Sexual problems
  • Eating disorders

Yep – I definitely relate to most of the above.

The authors identify two internalized messages for those with dissociative identity disorder (DID), but I would imagine that they can apply to others who suffered abuse throughout their childhoods:

  • I don’t know who I am, how I feel, or what I do.
  • I want to be whole, but I don’t know how.

That would be a resounding yes. I struggled with both of those issues for most of my life.

My guess is that most children who suffer abuse from age twelve to eighteen also suffered at younger ages, so this would be an accumulation of unmet needs and resulting aftereffects. I have been successful in cutting all of my abusers out of my life, including my mother, so I know that it is possible to end the dysfunctional bond with an abuser. Figuring out who I am and learning how to be whole have been the two driving forces of my healing journey.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I am working through a series on unmet needs. The series begins here. I am using the book Beyond Integration: One Multiple’s Journey (Norton Professional Books) by Doris Bryant and Judy Kessler as a guide because the authors did a wonderful job in identifying the unmet needs that result from abuse during each stage of development. All identified unmet needs and reactions of child abuse survivors are from Chapter Four: Lost Developmental Stages.

Authors Bryant and Kessler identified the following three needs for children from ages six to twelve:

  • Competence
  • Intellectual and social skills
  • Experimenting with ways of doing things

Children who are abused between age six and twelve experience isolation, which wreaks havoc on their ability to develop social skills. I had no clue about how to interact socially during this time in my life. It’s not like I could go up to another kid and say, “I was taken from my bed at the full moon, assaulted by a bunch of people in black robes, and fear for my sister’s life. So, how was your weekend?”

I was fortunate to have a group of girls take me under their wing. I was the shy and quiet friend who just went along with everything. My family moved away when I was 11, which got me away from the cult but also cost me my friends. It took me years to learn how to make a friend after that move.

The authors identify the following resulting internalized messages:

  • I can’t think/act for myself.
  • I’m stupid/wrong.
  • If I fail it’s my fault.
  • I’m a bad person.
  • I must try to look right.

Yes, I definitely internalized all of those messages. Even though I was objectively smart (graduated in the top 10 of my high school class of over 300 students, earned an academic scholarship for college, and earned a degree from a Top Ten graduate school), I was convinced that I was “stupid.” Even my intelligence was a “bad” thing.

I spent most of my life mirroring what other people did to get them to like me. I still do it today, although not consciously. I have picked up some of my newer friend’s mannerisms, but I only recently became aware of this in myself.

I have worked very hard to overcome these messages, and I have been much more successful in doing so than with the unmet needs from age three to six. I have learned to trust my intuition, which has given me the courage to think and act for myself. I have used positive mantras to undo many of these internal messages. I also consciously chose to stop thinking negative thoughts about myself, such as “I’m a bad person.”

Analyzing my own unmet needs for this series has been enlightening. I suffered from ritual abuse from ages six through eleven, so I would have guessed that those lost stages of development would have more of an impact than from age three to six, which was mostly the mother-daughter sexual abuse. I am surprised to learn that I am still most affected by my unmet needs from my younger years. I guess it is not a matter of how much I was impacted but which unmet needs I have succeeded in healing versus the ones that I have not.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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