Archive for October, 2009

This series is focusing on the issue of struggling with focusing on your own needs. The series begins here.

Here is the last part of the reader’s email:

And I feel selfish for thinking sometimes that soooooooo many people have been abused that my experience is diminished because it almost seems like it’s the norm for a woman to have a past history of sexual abuse. Does any of this make sense or is it just rambling?

Unfortunately, it is normal for child abuse survivors to minimize their abuse. In the book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman explains the reason for this:

Though [the abused child] perceives herself as abandoned to a power without mercy, she must find a way to preserve hope and meaning. The alternative is utter despair, something no child can bear…By virtue of these defenses, the abuse is either walled off from conscious awareness and memory, so that it did not really happen, or minimalized, rationalized, and excused, so that whatever did happen was not really abuse. Unable to escape or alter the unbearable reality in fact, the child alters it in her mind. ~ Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery, pp. 101-102

This is what we do as adults when we minimize our abuse, and we learned it in childhood. Most people who have heard my story tell me that it is one of the most extreme stories of child abuse that they have heard. Nevertheless, it took me a long time to pull out of the “others had it worse” mentality.

The bottom line is that even one incident of abuse is too many. If some monster raped my son one time, it would be far too many. That one incident would cause him to have nightmares, flashbacks, self-loathing, etc. There is no value in comparing our abuses because every incident of abuse is damaging.

I sometimes have people tell me that they feel like, after hearing my story, their abuse didn’t matter. I always tell them that, if they want to compare abuses, then let’s compare the healing. If I can heal after what I have been through, then you can heal, too. Let’s not focus on what broke us; let’s focus on the hope of healing.

I agree that having a history of sexual abuse is pretty much the norm for women (statistically one in three to one in four women, depending upon which study you cite). Rather than making the abuse less important, I think it makes society more terrifying. Child abuse is an epidemic, but society doesn’t want to believe it.

Let’s put this in perspective. President Obama recently declared the swine flu a national emergency because more than 1,000 people have died from it, over 20,000 have been hospitalized, and “many millions” of Americans have already had it (presumably without long-term aftereffects). People are referring to this as an epidemic, right?

The United States has over 307 million citizens. Statistics are that one in four women are sexually abused by age 18. Let’s assume that half of the Americans are women – that makes 153.5 million women. If one in four have been or will be sexually abused by age 18, we are talking about OVER 38 MILLION WOMEN who have been or will be sexually abused. (I am not even factoring in the one in five to seven men who have been sexually abused.) We are using words like “epidemic” to describe a flu that has only been serious enough to hospitalize or kill under 25,000 people, but we don’t see the brutalization of 38 MILLION WOMEN as an epidemic??

Never minimize the impact of abuse. These same women (and men) struggle with flashbacks, eating disorders, self-injury, drug abuse, suicide attempts, and all of the other crap that we deal with. Your abuse WAS “that bad,” and it needs to be healed. You deserve to heal and be freed from the aftereffects of the abuse.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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This series is focusing on the issue of struggling with focusing on your own needs. The series begins here.

Here is the next part of the reader’s email:

I think it’s probably a very important part of healing to “tell your story” but does it become selfish to spend so much time and emotion on yourself? Wait that doesn’t sound right. There’s a part of me that wants certain other people to know what happened to me but then I struggle with thinking that all I want is some misguided attention.

Yes, telling your story is crucial to healing. You were silenced as a child, so you need to have a voice in adulthood. For me, it was crucial that I post each flashback over at Isurvive, which was my way of “shouting from the rooftops” that the abuse happened as I told the details publicly. People in Australia could read what had happened to me – that was empowering to me. I also needed the validation of being believed because, for the first several months, I had a very hard time believing myself.

The “normal” state of being should be for every person to spend some time and emotion on him- or herself. Everyone needs some downtime to enjoy being alive. Life is not just about getting things done – we need to “stop and smell the roses.” Not only do child abuse survivors have a hard time stopping to smell the roses – they have trouble believing that it is okay even to notice the roses. Life needs to be about balance. There is a time to “do,” but there is also a time to “be.”

If you had cancer, wouldn’t you undergo chemo treatments? Consider therapy and the time invested as the chemo of your soul. Your soul is filled with emotional “cancer” from the abuse. Don’t you deserve to heal your soul just as much as a cancer patient deserves to heal her body?

What you wrote about the fear of “misguided attention” resonated deeply with me because I have been there. For the first time, I allowed myself to go to the deepest depths of the pain and sob. There isn’t a word in the English language for the wracking sobs that came out of my body. I was making sounds that did not even sound human, and I experienced emotional pain that I did not believe was even survivable.

In the midst of this, a thought came in my head (from an alter part) that I was just doing this for attention. I looked around my completely empty house and yelled out, “From whom!?!! Nobody is here!!” This was such a breakthrough moment for me. For the first time, I braved facing the pain, and I recognized that I was not trying to get anyone’s attention – I was just trying to heal.

It is okay to have needs. It is okay to invite others into your pain (when you are ready). It is okay to invest the time and money in therapy to help you learn how to heal. It is also okay for life to sometimes be about you.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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A reader sent me an insightful email asking questions about whether other child abuse survivors feel uncomfortable with focusing on their own needs. My answer was a resounding YES! In fact, I would say that this is the norm for child abuse survivors. This reader really needs validation from other child abuse survivors (not just me), so, if you struggle with feeling okay about taking care of yourself, please post a comment to reassure this person.

I will be focusing on this issue for the rest of the week because it is such an important topic that affects so many of us. I will share parts of this email to kick off each blog entry. Here is part of the email:

This makes me feel really selfish but here it is….I want to know if and how other’s deal with self pity? I don’t even know if that’s the right wording for it. But I feel shamed and selfish by focusing attention on myself.

There is a good reason that child abuse survivors have trouble focusing attention on themselves – we were taught in childhood that life was never about us! Think about it. Whose needs mattered? It was always your abusers’ needs that mattered, right? Your abuser “needed” to hurt you to cope with his or her own internal demons, and that need took precedence over your very normal childhood need to feel loved, safe, and valued.

I have an eight-year-old son, and most of our lives are wrapped around his needs. We are home by 8:00 p.m. because of his need for more rest. I run around like a madwoman half the time trying to get everything done that I need to do during school hours because my son needs me to do his homework with him, take him to play dates and sports, etc. Most of my schedule revolves around my son’s needs.

My son’s experience is very different from mine. Even setting aside the obvious overshadowing of needs through the abuse, my needs did not matter. My mother went grocery shopping when the dog food supply got low. If there wasn’t enough food for me, too d@#$ bad. My need to play a musical instrument was constantly overshadowed. My choices were to play the instruments that my parents chose for me or none at all, so I didn’t get myself a piano until my mid-thirties. It didn’t matter that I felt drawn to dance lessons and had no interest in horses. My mother liked horses, so I spent a good part of my childhood taking care of horses instead. Heck, I wasn’t even allowed to wear a girl’s hairstyle, so I was mistaken for a boy throughout my childhood until I hit puberty!

My needs did not matter in childhood, so I grew up believing that my needs did not matter in adulthood, either. I always did what my husband wanted because his needs mattered, but mine did not. I had no backbone at all because I did not believe that it was okay for me to have needs, so what was the point in trying to assert myself? It was only through becoming a mother that I learned to stand up for need (my son’s, not mine), and I only found the strength to enter into therapy because my son needed a healthy mother. I did not believe that it was okay to focus on myself until I was in therapy for a while and saw the difference it made by having one hour a week to focus on myself.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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**** Religious Triggers ****

On my blog entry entitled Getting Past Feeling like God Deserted You after Child Abuse, a reader posted the following comment:

For the last 10 years I would call myself an atheist because I can’t believe in a god who is all powerful and all knowing that would not intervene while children get hurt. That’s just so hard for my head to wrap around. … You said that god never promised to save children from harm, but shouldn’t it be expected from an all powerful being? … I remember begging for god to show himself to me and to help me with this burden. I gave him an ultimatum (I know who am I to give god an ultimatum) that if he didn’t show himself to me then I was done. I waited ….he never came. I downed 150 pills and drank some alchohol. Fortunately/Unfortunately? I survived. … I can’t remember exactly how the parable goes but the gist was that the shepherd left the 99 and went back to save the 1. Isn’t that essentially gods promise to save us? ~ Journey

You can read Journey’s full comment here. (Journey – I LOVE your screen name!)

Journey’s question is basically, “Shouldn’t an all-powerful being be expected to protect children?” Despite what you might have heard from well-meaning religious people, the answer to this question is no. I wrestled with this issue when I read the book The Shack by William Paul Young. See my blog entry entitled Words of Wisdom from “The Shack”: Do Children Have a “Right” to be Protected?.

Our innate feelings about justice and fairness scream that, if someone is all powerful, that power should be used to protect the weak and powerless. In the Bible, God Himself mandated this numerous times, telling his people to take care of the widow, orphan, and alien (the weak and helpless in that time period). Protecting the weak is our jobs as adults. We cannot just sit back and wait for divine intervention – We must take a stand and protect children, not because they have a right to be protected but because we love them.

For whatever reason (probably to fill the pews and collection plates), many religious people have sold us a bill of goods, saying that if you believe in God, He will keep you safe. That is simply not Biblical. Jesus Himself was crucified, as was Peter. Stephen was stoned to death. Saul murdered numerous Christians before his conversion. There is no place in the Bible that promises us heaven on earth. Our earthly lives are about growth, not security and safety.

Because some religious people have filled their pews by selling the lie that God will keep everyone safe, they have erected barriers to those of us who were not safe as children. I do believe that God does ultimately keep us safe, but that is spiritually, not physically or emotionally. I actually believe in reincarnation, which adds a whole different dimension to being safe. If you believe that you have one life and then you die forever, you are going to be angry about your lot in life and experiences. You will also view a short life as a tragedy.

However, if you believe in reincarnation, you see that this life and its hardships are only just a tiny sliver of your experiences. I am always okay because nothing can harm me (the spirit). My body might suffer and will eventually die, but I am not my body. My spirit transcends this one lifetime. I am here to learn life lesson, which will forever shape who I am becoming. However, as I let go of the expectation of being physically safe on earth, I also let go of the fear of being forever harmed by anything that anyone ever does to me. I am only here on earth for a little while, and my worries and concerns in this life will be meaningless after I return to spirit form. The one exception is the connection I make with others – that transcends this lifetime.

As for God not coming to you that night – I think it was God’s coming that prevented 150 pills and alcohol from taking your life. My experience has been that God always shows up, but I cannot always hear him when I am overwhelmed with my emotions. I must first pour out all of the pain before there is room inside to fill up with His peace. I suspect you passed out before you got to that point. I would encourage you try again. Lock yourself in a room and tell God that you are not leaving until He makes Himself known to you. Begin by getting out your anger. Yell and scream, punch pillows, and bless Him out. This will uncork the tears. Let yourself cry the tears until you cannot cry any longer. This is the point at which you will feel God’s presence. Right now, you have too many emotions drowning out His voice.

Also, remember that God’s voice is found in a whisper, not in something dramatic. It is also found through others who reach out to you. Sometimes we need a version of God with skin. :0)

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I got triggered at a Halloween party over the week. As I have shared before, I do not go to parties very often because I inadvertently commit some sort of faux pas that makes me look like an idiot. So, to the extent I am even invited to parties (intense people are hardly party material!), I am very careful about which ones I will even attend.

This weekend, one of my closest friends had a Halloween party. I knew most of the people there, which is always a plus. Things went very well for most of the night. I was not even triggered by the children running around in black capes, which can be a trigger for me. However, the hostess’ husband said something that triggered me, and I am happy to report that I was able to shake it off after a couple of hours.

Background – my friend offered to make four lasagnas for a different party but only owned two 9 x 13 Pyrex dishes. I loaned her my good one. When I found out that she needed a fourth, I offered my old one but warned her that it was not in good shape. Her husband made it his personal challenge to restore the dish to its original state, and he came close – I truly did not know that dish could look so go.

So, at the party he said that he wanted to “shame me” for having a dish in that condition and that I need to be more like an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) mutual friend who had already left the party for the evening. (She is OCD about germs and cleaning.) One of my best friends was sitting next to me and jumped right in with, “Oh, no she doesn’t. I don’t need to calm her down about that kind of stuff, too. She has enough to deal with,” or something to that effect. The conversation rapidly moved elsewhere, but the damage was done.

I tried reminding myself that this guy is far from perfect and that it was an @$$hole thing to say to someone who was nice enough to loan his wife two dishes. I also tried reminding myself that it did not stop his wife from borrowing my crock pot, which was sitting in the next room heating part of the dinner as he said this. However, none of that mattered in the moment. I was flooded with shame because I was triggered, so no amount of rationalization was going to make a difference.

I could have gone a number of directions, but I chose the healthy route. The party was wrapping up by this point, so I made my exit as soon as I could without drawing notice to being triggered. I went home and did some work for my job while listening to positive music. After doing that for about an hour, I noticed that I really was okay again. Yeah, me! :0)

I had an intense dream that night. My friend and her husband were making veiled comments about me being fat (something my friend would never do). I ducked out quickly, but my friend caught me and insisted that we talk it through. She was apologetic as I battled my shame, and we talked it all out until I felt better.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Today has been a rough day. It started with my son’s asthma flaring up. His trigger is viruses, so even simple sniffles or a runny nose can cause him to start coughing. He has third grade End of Grade Test benchmarks this week, so the last thing he needed was (1) less sleep from coughing, which exacerbates his attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms; and (2) his inhaler, which makes him even more hyper. So, the poor kid is having trouble breathing AND sitting still while taking a test that lasts for several hours.

My son’s ADHD symptoms have been particularly bad this week, causing him to do all sorts of weird and impulsive things, which is triggering to me because I feel like I cannot keep my child safe (which equates to not being able to keep my own inner child safe). I cannot keep him safe from his asthma, and I cannot keep him safe from his impulsivity.

Then, I found out that he failed the reading benchmark, which is not surprising but still upsetting. I spend 45 minutes a day walking him through his homework because he cannot read through the instructions and comprehend them at the same time. (He has accommodations at school for all of these issues.) Despite all of the hard work I am pouring into this kid, it is not enough. If he cannot improve his reading, he will not be allowed to go on to fourth grade next year.

Some other minor things triggered me as well, which I won’t go into now. I took Xanax (actually double my prescribed dosage), and it still wasn’t enough. I wound up breaking down crying at my kid’s school (where I volunteer all day on Wednesdays). No matter how hard I try, it’s not enough … and that is so triggering to the little girl inside who worked so hard to keep my inner child safe, but it wasn’t enough…

So, I am just feeling really lousy right now. I just want to shut down and not think. After I put my son to bed, I plan to exercise, watch TV, have some wine, and go to bed. I hate when I get triggered like this, but at least I am aware that I am triggered. That counts for something, right?

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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As I have shared on my blog, my birth family is not a part of my life. I only stay in touch with my sister, but even with her, it more about me doing things for her than a reciprocal relationship. In many ways, I feel like an orphan. I have no expectation of anyone in my birth family doing anything for me. I have made my own family through close friendships and, to a lesser extent, through marriage. Hub’s family has its own dysfunction, but I can count on them for some important things that I would never ask from my own family.

Three of my closest friends grew up in dysfunctional families that were nowhere near as insane as mine. (Let’s face it, though – I am not going to meet that many people who can “compete” with the insanity of my birth family.) While all three of them had less than ideal upbringings, they still have their parents in their lives and invest energy into those relationships. So, I guess I just assumed that their parents offered them some form of nurturing. I was shocked to learn just how off base I was on this.

One friend’s sister was so abusive that my friend has cut off all contact with the sister. The mother has taken measures to try to force a reconciliation, or at least a peaceful coexistence, between the siblings. My friend feels like she must scream for her mother to “hear” her, but the mother continues not to listen.

I found out from friend #2 that the only birthday cake that she has had in the last 10 years is one that she bought for herself for the sake of her kids. That broke my heart! I knew that her family did not make a big deal out of her birthday, so I have taken her out to dinner and a movie for her birthday for the last two years, but I was floored to learn that her own mother, who is in her life daily, couldn’t be bothered to buy her a birthday cake. (Money is not an issue for this woman.)

Then, I learned that friend #3’s mother is actually an insensitive b@#$%, too. She lives one street away from my friend. My friend is a single mother who contracted the H1N1 virus. When she called to tell her mother that she was home sick with the flu and had no food in the house, her mother’s response was, “It’s not your turn.” The mother was dealing with some drama with another family member, so she could not be bothered to drop a loaf of bread off on her daughter’s doorstep. Can you believe that?

None of these insensitivities would surprise me coming from my own family, but I was shocked to learn of these in my friends’ lives. Perhaps I am more open with my experiences, and they were not ready to let me know about this level of dysfunction in their relationships. Or, perhaps I just assumed that other people would not put energy into these types of relationships because I don’t. I don’t know – I am just reeling from the shock of it all and understanding why they invest in a friendship with me. (By the way, I dropped off bread and medicine for my sick friend as well as frozen dinners and cookies for the child. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to say no.)

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I spend a good part of last week doing some heavy housecleaning. I “reclaimed” our pantry (again) after hub hogged the pantry for his vending machine business for a few years. He sold the machines early last year and never cleaned his s@#$ out. I finally set aside several hours to throw out all of the junk in there, and I am thrilled to be able to use the pantry again. Hooray!

As I cleaned the pantry, I thought about how nobody ever taught me how to clean a house. My mother/abuser was mentally ill and never really cleaned our house when I was a kid. I did not know that a toilet ever needed to be scrubbed. I thought that floors only needed to be mopped once a year before out-of-town relatives came to visit. That was my existence throughout my childhood, and nobody ever told me anything differently. I finally learned how to clean a house by reading the book Housekeeping Secrets My Mother Never Taught Me. I followed this book like my own personal “Bible” and … voila … I now know how to clean a house (not that I enjoy it, but at least I can do it!).

When talking with people about the aftereffects of my childhood, we generally focus upon the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms like flashbacks, insomnia, self-injury, and binge eating. Compared to those very serious aftereffects, not knowing how to clean a house falls low on the priority list. However, never learning a basic life skill like how to clean a house is another loss that I experienced. Those losses matter, too.

I am sure that all of us could provide a long laundry list of skills that we never acquired in our childhoods. For example, I never learned that, when you are invited to a party or other type of gathering at someone’s house, it is polite to ask, “What can I bring?” I learned that from a fellow child abuse survivor after I was humiliated after showing up at a barbeque at someone’s house with nothing in tow. It was a very large gathering (easily over 20 families invited), and mine was the only family that brought along nothing. I was so upset that I swore I would decline all further invitations for the rest of my life. My pals over at Isurvive talked me through the experience and helped me to realize that I was not a horrible person for not just knowing this stuff. This was another loss that I experienced thanks to my terrible upbringing.

Thanks to our atypical childhoods, all of us have experienced losses that don’t seem to get discussed. I just want validate that those losses matter, too, and they are just as deserving of being grieved.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Last week, I shared that the television show 90210 is dealing with the reaction of child abuse survivors to learning the news that an abusive mother is terminally ill. The storyline continued this week, and I am pleased with the direction that it is taking. You can read more details about the storyline on my professional blog.

In a nutshell, the terminally ill alcoholic/drug addict/abuser has two daughters, Kelly (who is in her mid-thirties) and Silver, who is a teenager. Kelly is Silver’s guardian. Kelly’s reaction was pretty much, “That sucks for you. I am sorry that you are sick, but it doesn’t change anything.” Silver’s reaction is much more conflicted as she feels responsible to help take care of her dying mother. Kelly told the mother to leave Silver alone, and Silver reacted by moving back in with her mother.

I think that both reactions (again, one extreme or the other) is normal for a child abuse survivor. If my mother was told that she only had three months to live, I would not be sure how to react. I would feel a certain amount of pressure to see her one last time, but I would not want to do so. My sister, on the other hand, would rush to her side and nurse her through the entire ordeal.

Does that make my sister kindhearted and me an ice-cold b@#$%? I don’t think so. I think that both reactions are normal for child abuse survivors, and we have to do what we feel like we need to do. We need to listen to our inner wisdom and do what we feel is best for us in that situation, not what anyone else thinks is best.

On the show, Silver asked Kelly how she could care so little about her mother’s plight. Kelly’s response was, “I do care about mom, but I care about you more.” I think that is how I feel about myself and anyone else who chooses not to go running to support an abuser who is ill or dying. It’s not that I am a completely unfeeling person – it is that I care about my inner child more than I care about making my abuser feel better. If I must choose, I need to choose myself. I already sacrificed my childhood for my mother – I feel no compulsion to sacrifice my adulthood as well. Her terminal illness (if this ever happens to her) does not change things.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I recently had a conversation with a fellow child abuse survivor. She is dealing with some family issues with in-laws who “act inappropriately.” Most people would knock the teeth out of anyone doing these inappropriate things, but, as a child abuse survivor, this woman is conflicted. She knows that the behavior is unacceptable and protects her children, but she does not feel comfortable saying, “If you do that again, you will not see your grandchildren again for three months.” Why is that?

I don’t mean it pick on this woman because, goodness knows, I have been there myself. I took me a very long time to realize that it was okay for me to set boundaries in my life. Why is it that we have to work so hard to assert ourselves and say no to unacceptable behavior in a relationship?

My guess is that it all stems from childhood. We were not allowed to say no as children, and so the concept of saying no as an adult is foreign to us. I am glad that I am making progress in this area. I have learned how to say no and even (sometimes) revel in the “power” of saying no. I have come to realize that it is okay for people to think that I am a b**** sometimes. Those who do not want to take advantage of me rarely think this about me: It is only those who want to cross my boundaries who accuse me of this.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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