Archive for February, 2009

As I have shared before, I cut my mother/abuser out of my life back in 2003 when I entered into therapy to heal from the mother-daughter sexual abuse. I told her that there would be no more personal contact (visits or phone calls). She was emailing me to death, which messed with my head, so I cut that back to monthly. Since then, she has canceled her Internet service and just sends me monthly letters through snail mail.

She does send me a one-page letter every month. For the most part, it complies with my boundaries – no talking about the past, reconciling, etc. Since we have nothing in common, there is not much substance to it. I respond when I can handle it, which is often a few months later. If I go too long without responding, she comes up with stupid ideas like trying to call me, which I really, really don’t want.

So, she sent me her letter a couple of week ago. The mere fact of receiving a letter from her triggered me, even though she said nothing “bad” in the letter. I set it aside and haven’t done anything with it since it arrived.

Yesterday, I decided to get responding to the letter off my to-do list. Generally, I write a letter to someone else I care about and fill her in about my life. Then, I strip out anything that matters and send that version to my mother. It makes it much easier for me to write a page, and it takes very little time.

Even with these precautions in place, writing to her is very triggering for me. It finally hit me why – the pretense of these letters ignores the realities of the damage she inflicted upon my life.

I send her letters like this:

Hi, Mom.

It’s good to hear from you. I am glad that things are going well on your end.

[Insignificant information about my life that everyone around me knows.]

Take care,


It does not include that, thanks to her choices, I cannot sleep at night. My dreams are filled with nightmares. I have spent thousands of dollars on therapy to recover from the damage she inflicted on me. Every single area of my life has been tainted by her choices during my childhood.

Her responses are never about the stuff that matters. Her letters talk about how she wants to counsel other people – what a joke!

So, why do I continue the contact? I don’t know. At first, it was to stay true to myself – my way of showing her a kindness by having this little bit of connection with my life. But now … I don’t now … now it feels like I am continuing to betray myself by pretending that it is okay that she did the things that she did.

I am not sure where I am going with this or what I am going to do with it. All I know is that I sent her a letter and then had a bunch of nightmares centering around her. I awoke at 5:00 flooded with adrenaline.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Yesterday, I talked about dialing it back and shifting my focus from the dissociative identity disorder (DID) issues to the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) issues. (Isn’t my life fun??)

I have recently been recognizing just how f@#$ed up my sleep patterns are. My DID mostly shielded me from just how bad it was. I had (and still have) a wolf alter part that comes out at night to protect me while I sleep. Back when I still had DID, the wolf would take over while the host personality “lost time.” I saw this as sleeping very soundly when, in reality, I was dealing with all sorts of sleep issues.

Since my host personality integrated, I have stayed co-present when the wolf comes out. I always know that I am about to fall asleep when I feel the wolf come out.

I have had messed up sleep patterns forever, but for some reason, I am finally recognizing them for what they are. Here is my pattern:

  1. During the day — My version of “normal”
  2. Sun goes down – Headache
  3. Dark outside – Feel depressed
  4. Feel anxious/triggered
  5. Look for ways to make it stop – binge eat or drink alcohol
  6. Both tired and anxious as bedtime approaches
  7. Delay going to bed even though I am tired
  8. Go to bed late
  9. Wrap up tightly in blankets
  10. Wait for the wolf
  11. Experience nightmares
  12. Awaken at 3:00 a.m.

I cannot sleep unless all of the following happen:

  • Covered in heavy blankets, even during the summer
  • No breeze can touch my skin
  • Must breathe “new” air – cannot be warm (suffocation triggers)
  • White noise drowning out nighttime noises

This is clearly not normal. I could not do all of these things when I shared a room with hub, so I pretty much did not sleep very much or very well for over a decade.

Now, if I take a nap, I have no problem dropping off to sleep or sleeping very soundly. I also rarely have nightmares.

Obviously, this is not normal. These are all aftereffects from the child abuse. I would hear the door open and jerk awake. My mother would pull the covers off me, and I would feel a cool breeze hit my body. Those were always the first two signs that abuse was going to happen.

The fact that I went without the abuse for a few years and then it started again messed with my head, too. I cannot rest and feel assured that it won’t happen again. A part of myself is always on guard at night, waiting for the abuse to start again.

What blows my mind is that this has always been the case, but I am only recently recognizing just how serious this is. I also have no idea how to make it better. I frequently take sleep aids (herbal or over-the-counter sleeping pills) to help, but I don’t want to do that every night.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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A friend of mine told me that a recent issue of Oprah’s magazine included an article about binge eating. According to the article, a person has binge eating disorder if he binge eats twice a week for six months.

I died laughing when my friend told me this.

I did not laugh because I disagree. I laughed because binge eating only twice a week for six months falls close to my definition of being “cured” of binge eating. If I could dial it back to twice a week, I would be feeling like I had conquered my eating disorder and doing a jig.

I guess it is only now hitting me just how f@#$ed up I was (and still am in a lot of ways). While many people might look at my aftereffects today and see the profile of a person with serious post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) issues, I see myself as doing pretty well compared to where I was. I guess it is all relative.

I got to thinking about the dissociation continuum. On the far left is normal dissociation, and on the far right is dissociative identity disorder (DID). PTSD falls right in the middle.

A mere three years ago, I will still living on the very far right as a person with DID. Since then, I have been dialing it back and moving toward PTSD on the continuum. To me, this is major progress. However, I must recognize that I still have a long way to go to be on the other side of PTSD on the continuum. I also need to face that I might never get there.

Also, DID comes with its own issues, so those were my focus. The PTSD elements were not as severe as the DID ones, so they were not a priority for the few first years of my healing.

Now that I am becoming healthier, the PTSD stuff is bothering me more. It was always there, but it was comparatively less severe. As I dial it back, I see that there is still work aplenty to do.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I was recently triggered and got to thinking about the event that caused the triggering. This story is not triggering to read.

I was eight years old when my teacher assigned the class a book report. Most of the kids chose short books. I had always wanted to see a particular movie, which my mother did not take me to, so I asked to read that book for the book report. It was a full-length paperback novel, so my teacher tried to discourage me from reading it for the book report. However, because I insisted that I wanted to do it, she relented.

Sure enough, a full-length novel was too long for me read in the time period allotted. I was only eight years old, and a young eight at that (recently had a birthday).

My mother took no pity on me. She sent me to my room and would not let me out until I finished the book. I had already read hundreds of pages, but I simply could not handle the last 25 pages. It was too much. I could not see the words through my tears.

Instead of reading the last 25 pages with me, my mother punished me. I was grounded for weeks. Then, S (my most sadistic abuser) abused me terribly, saying that it was “punishment” for not reading the whole book. When my teacher compassionately asked me if I had really read the entire book, I looked her square in the eye and said, “Yes.” I had been punished enough.

I took from this incident that doing five times as much as everyone else was not good enough. I had to be perfect, and I had to get it right 100% of the time. Anything less would result is severe consequences.

I was thinking about this incident as I was driving my son to school, and it hit me – He is exactly the age that I was when this happened. The child cannot get through a simple chapter book yet, much less a novel written for adults. How cruel to expect this little boy, who is not developmentally ready to read an adult book, to punish him for not being able to do it.

And then, for the first time, it really hit me just how cruel these adults in my life really were. I was just a little kid.

For some reason, in my memories, I seem older than I was. I look at my little eight-year-old boy who is clearly such a little kid, and it drives home just how cruel my abusers were. I cannot fathom how they could look at a child that young and innocent and do the things that they did to me.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Last week, I wrote about my struggles with accepting that the aftereffects of the child abuse will always be a part of my life:

I also wrote about this topic on my professional blog about adoption on a blog entry called Is an Abused Child Ever Fully “Over” the Abuse?.

A reader, who is both a child abuse survivor and parent of abused children that she adopted out of foster care, posted the following comment. It was so profound that I wanted to share it with all of you here:

The problem I see is not that abuse and trauma leaves lifelong scars, but that it keeps people from living their lives. Many smart people spend their whole life chasing after “normal”. They think that they will begin living when they finally achieve that, and get on the other side of their issues. So sad to discover that life has passed them by while they work and wait.

Personally, I feel better with the hard reality that “You will never be like people who didn’t have to go through this. Don’t waste your life trying to be.” This is what I tell myself, and this is what I tell my adopted children. I tell them, you will deal with your crap over and over again. At every major stage of life it will crop up, and you will have to come to terms with it. Expect it, and do the hard work. And never put your life on hold while you do.

The only way abusers win, is when they steal our lives. We don’t have to let that happen. ~ scrapsbynobody

I really needed to hear those words, and I suspect that many of you do, too. We might not have loving parents to nurture us, but we can learn from the pearls of wisdom offered by adoptive parents of traumatized children who have understood the dynamic of healing from child abuse from the outside.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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A recurring message that I received as an abused child was one of isolation. I was alone with my abusers. There was nobody to help me.

The Evanescence song Whisper from the album Fallen captures this feeling of isolation so well:

Catch me as I fall
Say you’re here and it’s all over now
Speaking to the atmosphere
No one’s here and I fall into myself
~ Whisper by Evanescence

I might have been alone in my abuse, but I have never been alone in my healing. I had my therapist, who was incredibly supportive and believed in me when I did not believe in myself. I had some close friends offline who listened to my story and became ever more loyal after hearing all that I had been through.

I had a very large support system over at Isurvive, my favorite message board for child abuse survivors. I became close friends with some of the people I met there, and we wound up communicating through email, encouraging one another along our healing journeys.

Since I started writing this blog, I have met so many wonderful child abuse survivors in various stages of healing. Some of them email me, and others post comments on my blog. (Some do both.)

The level of support that child abuse survivors offer one another is amazing. I have been a part of other communities that come together for a variety of reasons, but none are as supportive, deep, and intense as a community of child abuse survivors. The irony is that it is mostly in that community where some people still tend to see themselves as “outsiders.” This has nothing to do with the way they are treated: it has everything to do with their internalized messages from childhood.

You do not have to heal from your child abuse alone. Numerous resources are available, and those who offer their support really do care.

That is why I write this blog. I am a very busy person. I work part-time as an online college instructor and freelance writer. I am a very active volunteer at my son’s school. I am active in my church. I am a stay-at-home mom of a child with ADHD, which has its own challenges.

I do not write this blog because I am bored and looking for something to do. I write it because I care. I remember how alone I felt when I was first going through the flashbacks and thinking that I was “crazy.” I would not have survived the healing process without the support of fellow child abuse survivors – those who either were currently in the trenches with me or had been there before.

I needed to know that healing was possible, and I needed to hear that I was not “crazy.” I also needed to hear that there was something worth loving in me.

All of these things are the gifts that I want to give to you, and many other child abuse survivors have this to offer as well. You are not alone in your healing journey unless you choose to be.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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In my last couple of blog entries, I have been talking about my struggle in coming to terms with the fact that I will always have obstacles from the child abuse in my life. This is not an easy admission for me to make, much less face.

As frustrating as this admission is, it is also empowering. Obstacles can be overcome. In fact, obstacles are what make life interesting. A good skier wants to ski down a slope with moguls. A good golfer wants to golf on a course with sand traps. The obstacles are very real and need to be acknowledged, but they do not have the power to prevent a person from reaching her goal.

I have been viewing healing from child abuse as removing the obstacles from my life. I thought that I would be “healed” when every obstacle was gone. As I am moving into my sixth year of actively healing from the child abuse, I still have many obstacles in my life, and I was beating myself up for this. I thought that I should be farther along in removing the obstacles by now.

As I recognize that these obstacles will always be a part of my life, I am changing my focus and where to direct my healing energy. I do not need to know how to remove a sand trap in order to play on a golf course – I just need to know how to work around the obstacle. Thanks to all of the hard work I have done in healing over the past several years, I am very good at working around obstacles. The fact that they are still there has not prevented me from getting where I want to go. I just have to work around them.

Perhaps the point of healing is not to make the obstacles “go away” but to learn how to ski around them. Perhaps I can apply learning how to “ski around” my child abuse obstacles to other areas of my life. Maybe healing is not about making the bad stuff “go away” but, instead, learning how to love and accept yourself and reach your goal despite their presence in your life.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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In my last blog entry, I shared that I am in the process of accepting that I will always have aftermath from the child abuse to deal with. I am trying to adjust to this reality and be okay with it.

I said that when I reframe my situation and view having aftereffects from the child abuse as “normal,” I can stop beating myself up for not being able to do the impossible and, instead, have compassion on myself.

When my goal was the cessation of any aftermath from the child abuse, I was constantly falling short of the goal. I would get frustrated with myself, thinking that I was not doing X, Y, or Z enough. If I only did more of X, Y, or Z, then I would not still struggle with triggers.

When I reframe my expectations, I can stop beating myself up and, instead, have compassion on the little girl inside who was so badly wounded. Why do I struggle with frequent triggers? Because I was extremely damaged. Why do I get a bad headache and struggle with insomnia at each full moon? Because I was severally abused at the full moon for years during my childhood.

Rather than get angry with myself for having a normal reaction to severe trauma, I want to focus on loving myself. I need to accept that I was the wounded little girl in my memories – not somebody that I was watching from afar. To this day, many of my memories are from the perspective of the outside because it is still too painful to accept that this body that I live in now is the one that endured so many traumas.

I saw my therapist a couple of months ago after not seeing him for a couple of years. We talked about how I would probably continue to recover memories/experience flashbacks from time to time throughout the rest of my life. We also talked about how this is okay. I am releasing memories, getting to know myself better, and accepting myself and my experiences at deeper and deeper levels.

I can’t say that I am happy with this realization, but I do feel relieved. I can finally stop pushing myself so hard and, instead, love who I am today. I don’t have to wait until I grow into this person with no more post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) issues. I can love and accept the person who I am today. I can also appreciate who I am today. I don’t have to wait to do that.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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When I decided to heal from my history of child abuse, I was determined for the outcome to be complete, 100% healing. At my first therapy session, my therapist asked me what my goals were, and I said that I wanted to be a “normal” person like everyone else. He replied that everyone else was not “normal” and that it was unrealistic for me to expect to be like everyone else. I did not want to hear that.

For years, I have been determined to heal completely. I concluded that other people simply did not try hard enough … that I was different … that I was going to be the exception to the rule and live a completely normal life as a completely healed person.

I am starting to (very reluctantly) accept that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is always going to be a part of my life. This is a very hard thing for me to admit to myself, much less to anyone else. A part of me feels like this admission means that I am “giving up” – that I have failed on my quest to be a completely healed person.

It is not like my therapist did not tell me this from the beginning. He said that healing means that triggers last for hours instead of weeks or months. Healing is all about degrees and about how I feel about myself. For him, the goal was never for me to be 100% free of nightmares, flashbacks, and the other aftermath. (That was certainly my goal!) Instead, his goal was for me to love and accept myself as I am, riding out the aftermath and returning sooner and sooner to a place of being okay.

If I use my therapist’s definition of healing, then I am already “healed.” However, I don’t feel “healed,” and I think this is because my definition of healing has been so different.

I am beginning to accept that I will always have aftermath of my childhood to ride out and deal with. The aftereffects will gradually improve as I learn how to manage them, but they are never going to disappear magically as I want them to.

How does this realization make me feel? In some ways, it makes me angry because this means that my abusers succeeded in affecting my life until the day I die. That really p@$$es me off. In other ways, it makes me feel relieved.

I am so hard on myself. I always have been. I throw all of my energy into the direction that I want to go in my life, and I have done this in spades when it comes to healing. All of this deep effort has failed to make the aftermath “go away.”

When I reframe my situation and see this as “normal,” I can stop beating myself up for not being able to do the impossible and, instead, have compassion on myself. I will get into that in my next post.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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On my blog entry entitled My Most Traumatizing Child Abuse Memory, a reader posted the following comment:

I hope you don’t mind but I have a question though. Reading this post I wonder how you manage to deal with the images, smells, feelings etc afterwards. I mean I am really struggling to manage after a memory surfaces or an image appears, it just gets played over and over in my head. PArtly i think because I’m trying to work it out – is it real? Am I making this up? Does it fit with everything else I’ve remembered? Does it fit with the person who I thought I knew? And most of those things I can’t work out, and so it just plays and replays on continuous loop. I try and remind myself that it isn’t happening now, but it doesn’t seem to help. I just wondered how you managed that, and manage to look at these things, remember them but not be tormented by them. ~ Karen

A friend gave me some really great advice about how to handle flashbacks. She used the metaphor of a fire hose. The flashbacks, including the emotions, images, smells, etc., are like the high-pressure water running through a fire hose, while I am the fire hose housing the pressure.

As these very strong emotions, etc., flow through me, I frequently fear that they will sweep me away because the power of the current is so strong. However, I must remember that I am the hose. I am stationary. Emotions might be extremely strong, but I do not have to get swept away in them. Instead, I need to let them flow through me, just as the fire hose allows the high-pressure water to flow through it. I am the hose, not the emotions.

Now, think about what happens to a fire hose when it gets a kink in it. The pressure of the water builds and could potentially break through the hose. That is what happens when we fight the emotions. When you fight the release of the memory by questioning whether it happened, refusing to allow the emotions to release, etc, the pressure builds up in the hose. Think about a cartoon where the hose gets bigger and bigger until it explodes. Metaphorically, this is what you are doing to yourself when you fight the process of releasing the memories.

Whenever I deal with a new memory or, in the case of the blog entry about my dog, face a traumatizing memory at a deeper level, I accept what comes. I invite the pain to course through me and then out of me back into G*d, the universe, or whatever you want to call it. I visualize the pain as black stuff inside of my spirit. I slowly and deeply breathe in air filled with self-love. Then, I slowly breathe out air filled with the pain. I visualize the air and pain flowing out of my right side. (I am not sure why. It just works for me.)

I do this exercise several times until I feel the pain flowing out of me. Then, I become the hose – merely a vessel for the pain to flow out of the deepest recesses of my soul and back to G*d. I choose not to attach any of my energy from today to that high-pressure water because the energy is about the past and not about today.

After I finish this exercise, I “go to the beach” in my head. The beach is my safe place. I visualize myself sitting on the beach and soaking in the positive energy. This helps me “seal off” my hose so that the negative energy that I just released does not flow back into me.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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