Archive for December, 2008

This week, I have been talking about the challenges of dealing with my mother-in-law (MIL’s) sudden death the week before Christmas. In light my child abuse history and negative associations with Christmas already, this has been quite a challenge. I might have to flee to Fiji for Christmas next year.

Hub and my in-laws have been so impressed with how I took over and took care of everyone right after my MIL passed away. My father-in-law (FIL) could barely get the words out when he called to tell me that his wife had just died. I told him that I would tell both of his sons for him. I also told him to write a list of who needed to be notified, and I would take care of it.

When FIL said that he hoped there would be lots of flowers at the funeral, I went out and ordered $200 worth of flowers, broken into three bouquets (one from hub and me, one from our son, and one from my sister and kids) so it would look like more flowers.

When FIL said he hoped that a lot of people would come to the funeral (even though nobody in that family has many friends), I emailed everyone I knew here in town and asked them to come. Even though it was a week before Christmas, over a dozen of my friends showed up to support us, and most of them had never even met my in-laws.

When hub said that he did not want his coworkers to come to the funeral because he did not want them to see him cry, I told his coworkers politely – and then bluntly – not to come. I told hub’s secretary to blame any “misunderstandings” on me if there was any political fallout from this.

I comforted them as they cried. I listened to their very normal and understandable reactions to sudden death and gave them the reassurances that they needed – that she loved them and knew that they loved her. I did everything within my power to ease their pain.

When they wanted a family member to deliver the eulogy but feared not being able to stay composed, I offered to write and deliver the eulogy. I got their input and made sure that everyone liked what I had to say. I held myself together to deliver a beautiful eulogy in front a room filled with people.

So, I was quite taken aback when hub expressed surprise that I had cried some during that week. He thought that my strength came from a lack of caring.

Why is it that people who do not have the same level of strength tend to assume that strength is a result of not caring? Everything I did during that time was from caring. It was incredibly hard for me to do the things that I did the week that my MIL died, but I did them because they had to be done. Cracking up was not an option. Someone had to be the strong one, and I was the only candidate.

Yes, I am strong person. I had to be to survive my childhood. But superheroes bleed, too.

Photo credit: Faith Allen

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There is no getting around it. Losing a loved one during the holidays is completely awful. Of course, a death in the family is never pleasant, but there is an added pain when it happens right at a time when society at large is “jolly.”

It is okay to laugh at this blog even though it might feel morbid. My life over the past couple of weeks has felt like a cosmic black comedy. It is one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” kinds of things.

My father-in-law (FIL) telephoned me early Monday morning to tell me that my mother-in-law (MIL) had passed away that morning. She was not in very good health, but we still did not see this coming. He could barely get the words out to me, so I told him to write me a list of who needed to be notified, and I would take care of it. (Always the child abuse survivor being the strong one.) I then left to tell hub and my brother-in-law (BIL) in person separately.

Of course, that morning, my son and I had distributed Christmas presents to the staff at his school. I had worn my tackiest Christmas sweatshirt for the occasion, with Santa and the presents falling out of his sleigh. So, yes, that is what I was wearing when I delivered the devastating news to hub and to BIL.

Hub took the news hard, so I just sat there with him for a long time. Then, I drove out to tell BIL, dreading how he would react. I turned on the radio to distract myself, only to hear the opening of the song, “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” I thought to myself, “Yep. That’s about right in my life.”

I have never had to be the one to call a list of people to deliver the news that someone they loved had passed away. The reactions were all over the map, intermixed with goofy answering machine messages with Santa saying, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” One person took the news calmly. The next went into hysterics. A third said, “Oh, s@#$,” and then apologized. (I assured him that was my first reaction as well.) I was careful to break the news gently, so I was taken aback when another woman yelled to her husband, “XXX died!”

The weirdest part of losing a loved one during the holidays is sorting the mail. Each day, I would pull a large pile of envelopes out of the mailbox and sort them into “Happy Holidays” and “Sympathy” piles. Believe it or not, I even had one that combined the two, writing this on the back of the Christmas card: “You son is growing so big. Our grandchildren are now roommates in college. We were sorry to hear about hub’s mother’s death. Love, XXX”

You gotta laugh to keep from crying.

During a time of year in which I am already struggling even in the best of circumstances, losing a loved one was really hard. It plays with your head to have people all around you singing “Holly, Jolly Christmas” while your family is falling apart emotionally. There is no getting around it – losing a loved one during the holidays is simply awful.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Hi, everyone. I am back from my hiatus (I hope!). I stopped blogging abruptly in the middle of a series on dealing with issues surrounding sex after sexual abuse. I do plan to get back to that topic, but first I feel the need to pour out the last couple of weeks. They have been very rough.

Like many of you, the holidays are a very difficult time for me. My baseline is anxiety, nightmares, and feeling out of sorts. Throw in a mother-in-law passing away a week before Christmas, and Christmas turns into one big, fat, ugly mess.

My mother-in-law and I had a strange dynamic, which I guess is true for many mother/daughter-in-law relationships. She said that she embraced me as a daughter, and I sooo wanted to believe that was true in light of my own history with my mother/abuser. I desperately wanted a mother, and I saw my relationship with her as life giving me another chance at having that bond.

Unfortunately, when I married, I was so emotionally unhealthy that I saw my husband’s family as the “perfect” family that I never had. I embraced them as such. But, as with most families, they had their own dysfunction, but I did not see it, much less understand it, so I would step into emotional “landmines” with regularity and assume that it was just me doing something “wrong” again.

It wasn’t until I entered into therapy and began the healing process that I grew to recognize that hub’s family was dysfunctional, too. As my therapist pointed out, my family was so “out there” that my in-laws looked “normal” to me because they were at least “on the map” of normal. However, as I healed, the dysfunction became more glaring.

Without going into details, my mother-in-law needed to feel needed (which I equated to dependent) in order to feel loved. Anyone who reads my blog with regularity knows that I have issues with being reliant upon anyone. This was a train wreck waiting to happen, and it did a few years ago. Since then, I downgraded my relationship with my mother-in-law to being a “polite outlaw,” and we found a rhythm that worked well enough. However, I did grieve mightily the loss of yet another “mother” back when it all happened.

So, when my mother-in-law passed away a couple of weeks ago, I had already done much of my grieving. I had already grieved the loss of the relationship in my life. Now, it was time to focus upon the grief of my husband, son, and hub’s family.

Also, even though my relationship with her was no longer what (I thought) it had once been, she was still a strong presence in my life. I saw her at least weekly for Saturday night dinners with the family. In many ways, I still cannot believe that she is gone.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Taking a Break

I am going to be taking a break for a week or two from blogging. My mother-in-law passed away suddenly earlier this week. Her funeral is this afternoon.

Fortunately, I had written a week ahead, so I had content for this week. However, I have been so busy with making arrangements for the funeral, writing her eulogy, etc., that I have not had the luxury of sitting down and blogging.

My husband is taking the loss of his mother hard. She lived only two miles away, and we saw her at least weekly. My son is too young to understand fully what this loss means. My father-in-law and brother-in-law are devastated.

As you know from reading my blog, I struggle at this time of year anyhow. Adding a death in the family the week before Christmas is about as much as I can take. I keep reminding myself to feed the right wolf, but it is so hard to once again have to be the strong one.

I am not sure how to handle all of the details for Christmas. It is going to be hard opening the presents from my mother-in-law, but I cannot imagine not doing it, either. These will be our last gifts from her, and that’s hard to wrap our minds around.

While I get through this family crisis, I don’t have time for extra stuff, no matter how much I love it. But don’t worry – I’ll be back in a week or two. I am going to be okay. I always am.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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One my most popular blog entries is one entitled Orgasm during Rape or Other Form of Sexual Abuse. In the comments, Palucci posted the following:

I woke up this morning. I realized something else about myself that I never questioned before. I am 39 years old and married for 10 years and I have never had an orgasm while having normal, traditional sex. The first time I had an orgasm during consensual sex it was oral. And that night I had the nightmare about being raped when I was a kid. Last night I was depressed, because recently it has also come to my attention that I use sex like I use cutting and burning. At the time it meets a need, but then I feel worse, remorseful. My husband has recently quit drinking and he will not participate in rough or degrading type sexual acts. Last night he would not follow me in that direction and kept it traditional so no orgasm and I still felt remorseful and ashamed of my behavior.

What Palucci describes is a very common problem for adult survivors of child sexual abuse. As children, orgasms and abuse intertwine, and then achieving an orgasm as an adult in a consensual sexual relationship becomes a challenge.

To overcome this challenge, many sexual abuse survivors reenact the abuse in order to achieve an orgasm. They might engage in similar sexual acts, such as being tied up as they are having sex. While there is nothing wrong with two consenting adults engaging in a bondage sexual scenario, more than that is going on for the sexual abuse survivor. The sexual abuse survivor is actually reabusing herself in order to achieve an orgasm. As Palucci points out, instead of feeling good after the orgasm, the sexual abuse survivor is left feeling empty and remorseful.

Another way that sexual abuse survivors reabuse themselves to achieve an orgasm is by fantasizing about an abusive scenario during sex. For example, a survivor of ritual abuse or gang rapes might fantasize that a crowd of people are watching as she has consensual sex. While, outwardly, there is nothing “abusive” about the consensual sex, the sexual abuse survivor is projecting herself back into an abusive situation in order to achieve an orgasm. Once again, instead of the orgasm feeling good, the sexual abuse survivor experiences deep levels of self-loathing after the orgasm.

Unfortunately, when many sexual abuse survivors give up the fantasies or reabusing sexual acts, they also lose the ability to achieve an orgasm. This doubly frustrates the sexual abuse survivor, and then every sexual encounter produces pain and shame.

My next several blog entries will talk about this issue in more detail. I don’t claim to have all of the answers because I am still working on healing this in myself, but I can share what I have learned so far.

Good Resource for Healing from Sexual Abuse:

The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Revised Edition)

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I recently paid a visit to my therapist. I have been out of therapy for a couple of years now, but I felt like I needed a “therapy tweak.”

I told my therapist about how challenging it was to keep getting triggered and then be okay a few days later. It made me feel like I was going crazy. He reassured me that this is normal.

I also told him that I was surprised that I was still recovering new memories from time to time. He said that this will probably happen for the rest of my life. The big difference is that they will no longer rock me like they once did. (This transformation has already happened.) Flashbacks in the later stages of healing provide more information, but the feelings don’t carry the punch that they once did. Hooray!

It was very reassuring to have a professional, who I trust, tell me that everything that I am feeling is normal. He pointed out that the Christmas season is filled with triggers because of my history, so it makes sense that I would be triggered much more frequently at this time of year.

From the very first appointment, my therapist did a great job in guiding me toward what the end goal was. It is not realistic to expect that my past will completely “go away” and never influence any aspect of my life again. However, my life does not have to be defined by my past. I can learn how to let the triggers pass through me as they come.

A friend of mine said to remember that I am the fire hose, not the water coursing through it. My emotions from the triggers are like the high-pressure water racing through. As the hose, I feel the emotions rushing through, but I do not have to follow them. I can simply accept that emotions are part of the human experience. Let them run their course, don’t fight them, and I will be okay.

My therapist also told me that I need to give myself permission to enjoy my life. It okay for me to do fun things and enjoy them. It is okay for me to feel good about the things in my life that are going well. That is such a hard habit for me to break.

I always stay so focused on how far I have to go. I see where I want to be at the top of the mountain, and I get discouraged that I am not yet there. However, if I will take some time to look behind me, I will notice that where I was five years ago is not even visible on the horizon.

I don’t think the healing process ever ends, but it becomes much more enjoyable as you go along.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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One of the biggest joys in my life is helping others along their healing journey. That is why I write this blog. I don’t get paid for it. I only registered as an Amazon affiliate so that this blog can raise money to help fund Isurvive, my favorite charity for child abuse survivors. The checks go directly to the charity.

This blog is a labor of love, because I hear frequently that the lessons I have learned through my fierce healing battles are helping others along their own healing journeys. I see others find healing in my deepest wounds, and it brings value from what otherwise would have been meaningless. I will never be grateful that I was abused, but I will be forever grateful that I am helping others to heal.

What frustrates me is how I am unable to help some of the people I care about most to heal. I am helping people on other continents along their own healing journeys, but I must stand back helplessly and watch others in my day-to-day life struggle without being able the help them. The difference is that those of you who are reading my blog are in a place where you are ready to face your demons and heal. Some of the people I care about in my off-line, day-to-day life are not there.

I have one friend who is struggling with anorexia, but I cannot do anything about it. She is not ready to hear me. If I say anything, she will only push me away and further isolate herself, which will only make matters worse.

So, I watch in silence as she wastes away and pray that she will talk to me one day. I have told her about my own personal h@#$ of battling an eating disorder, so she knows (or should know) that I get it. However, my version was the other extreme (binge eating), so maybe she won’t know. I see her speeding toward a brick wall, and I am powerless to stop her.

Then I have another friend who was recently diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It was news to her that this was an anxiety disorder, and she had it all backward. She has agreed to take medication so she can alleviate the symptoms, which she believes are causing her anxiety. I told her that her symptoms are how she is managing the anxiety, but she did not want to hear this.

She also did not want to hear that, if she would focus on expressing her repressed anger, she would see a big reduction in her OCD symptoms. I was not advising this in place of the medication but in addition to it. She is not ready to face that she has any anger to deal with. She says that she has forgiven her abuser and even continues a relationship with the abuser. In my experience, forgiveness cannot occur until after you give your anger a voice. She never has.

I cannot make another person heal. It is just so hard to see someone I love going the wrong way and be powerless to stop it. I guess I need to focus on who I have helped rather than who I cannot.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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It feels like forever since I wrote on my blog. I started a new job a few weeks ago. I knew that starting the new job, combined with the Christmas season, would take most of my focus, so I wrote ahead on my blogs, both here and on my professional adoption blog. I am glad I did because it has been a wild ride.

I was hit with some tragic news a few weeks ago that sent me reeling. Someone that I cared about passed away, and I did not take the news well. As philosophic as I can be about reincarnation when applied to my own life, it was not much comfort when I first got the news. I am doing much better now as I have had time to process and digest the news. Loss is hard, no matter where it comes from. There are no shortcuts through grief.

Getting this news was like a punch in the gut. I tried to rely on my three-step guide, but it was only so helpful at first. It was like the bad news sucked the wind out of me, and I simply could not breathe. I also was not convinced that I would get over this in 36 hours, so that was of no comfort to me. I had to hope that trying to feed my good wolf would be enough to get me through this cycle of triggering.

As it turned out, it took me about three days to pull out of the nosedive. While I was in that bad place again, there is nothing that would have convinced me that I would be okay again. I cried off and on for three days – hard, wracking sobs. It never once occurred to me to go back and read what I had just recently written about how to handle being triggered.

I even called my therapist and scheduled an appointment. I ended therapy a couple of years ago. I think I need a little “tune up.” The holiday season is always hard for me, but it makes me feel like I am bi-polar to be okay … and then fighting suicidal urges … and then okay again. Yes, I know that I am being triggered and that I am pulling myself back out (and that many of you would do anything to have the ability to pull out of a trigger in three days), but it makes me feel “crazy.” I need to hear a professional reassure me again that what I am experiencing is normal for a child abuse survivor.

If anyone else is feeling this way during the holiday season, you are not alone. Even after all of my years and hard work of healing, I still struggle with this, too.

Related Topic:

PTSD and Cycles of Emotions

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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While it was daunting for me to share my history of child abuse with friends, I have no regrets about doing so. Even the times that did not turn out so great were still worth it. Every time I share my child abuse story, I validate that it happened. I also educate others about child abuse, which is also important. Those who chose to pull away after learning about my child abuse history still had to face that child abuse happens. I hope that they will be more receptive the next time around if/when another child abuse survivor shares her story with them.

Fortunately, I have had many more positive reactions than negative ones to sharing my child abuse story. Those who know at least some of my child abuse history are amazingly loyal. I have been called all sorts of wonderful things, such as a “walking miracle.” I have had multiple people tell me that I am an inspiration. One said that, if I can have a good day and enjoy my life after all that I have been through, then she knows that she can handle her own issues that she is facing in her life today.

Revealing my truths has invited some people into a deeper level of emotional intimacy. I can be myself around them. When I am triggered, I can call and say, “I am triggered,” and they know what to do. I even provided one friend with a “script” so she knows what to say next time. I don’t have to deal with my pain by myself any longer. By opening up about where I have been, I have added resources to my life to help me deal with my pain when it bubbles up.

Each time I tell my story, it gets easier. Many of my emotional wounds are now scars, so they no longer hurt. I can talk about a lot of terrible things without crying or feeling pain. Instead, when I take a walk down memory lane with a friend, I can see what happened to me through my friend’s eyes rather than through the distorted lenses that I always used. This helps me to be more objective about what happened and accept, once and for all, that I was not responsible for the things that other people did to me.

The admiration that friends show for me for surviving all that I did is inspirational. When I inspire them, they, in turn, inspire me. Everybody wins.

A true friend is someone who knows all about you and chooses to love you, whether that love is despite or because of what you went through. Choosing to tell my story and reveal my pain has opened up doors in friendships that I never thought possible.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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One of my biggest challenges in sharing my story is figuring out what to tell or, more precisely, how much to tell. My story is so involved that I could go on for weeks.

I am always concerned about the reaction of the other person. I used to be concerned about being rejected after telling my story. That is not generally my concern these days. Instead, I worry about how the other person will react to my story. I don’t want to hurt anyone else. I don’t want the other person to have nightmares or be afraid to let her child out of her sight.

I generally start out by being very general, such as by saying, “I was abused as a child.” If the person reacts well to this information (or, better yet, asks questions), I might share that my mother was my primary abuser. Or I might share that I was sexually abused. I generally don’t share both pieces of information in one sitting because that is a lot for another person to absorb.

If a friend wants to know more, or if I feel a need to share more, I also begin by stating that my story is very hard to hear and ensuring that the other person really wants to know this information. I reassure the friend that I am comfortable in talking about my history of child abuse, but other people have had strong reactions to my story. That way, if the person does react with nightmares, etc., I have a clear conscience that she chose to invite this information into her life.

It is easier for me if the other person asks questions rather than giving a narrative, but I have done it both ways. I try to stay general and avoid sharing too many details. However, even general information like, “my abusers slaughtered my dog in front of me,” can cause the other person to reel, even when I provide no specific details.

I have had people turn white and say, “I think I am going to be sick,” after I have shared something in a very general way that is just not that big of a deal for me to share. I try to be sensitive to the fact that most people have not lived through the atrocities that I have. However, what I endured was very bad, and I am not going to sugarcoat what I have been through.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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