Archive for July, 2010

A reader emailed me and asked me to cover the topic of how the world blames the child abuse victims and how the world thinks they know the effects. This is a great topic idea that we need to talk about.

My experience is that, while most people are sympathetic to an abused child, they are mostly ignorant about the aftereffects of child abuse, especially in adulthood. I frequently hear comments such as, “an abused child is just going to grow up to become an abuser himself.” (This is not supported by statistics. Actually, only 1 in 10 abused children have been found to abuse in adulthood, which means that 90% of abused children do not become abusers. See this article.) I have been asked why I did not tell anyone. My response was, “Who would I tell? My own mother was hurting me. Who would I possibly have thought was safe when my own mother wasn’t safe?”

These are comments that I hear from well-meaning, law-abiding, “good” people. These are not abusers or people who in any way condone child abuse. However, society as a whole is woefully uneducated about child abuse and the aftereffects. This is one reason I am so passionate about educating people about child abuse every chance that I get, and I do this a lot at my church. Church people have the collective power to make a difference if they take a stand, but they are not going to do it if they are ignorant to the issues and statistics.

Another big area of societal ignorance is repressed memories. I strongly believe that the big wave of false memory syndrome propaganda in the 1990’s was perpetuated by child abusers, and many members of society still buy into the misconception that, if you did not always retain every memory of abuse from childhood, then it must have been implanted.

Stepping up on the soapbox…

When someone tells me that I must have false memory syndrome, I feel insulted, and I don’t feel this way easily. This assumption about me presumes that I am so weak-minded and weak-willed that I would simply allow another person to embed false memories in my head. I don’t trust many people, and I am a very intelligent person (graduated from a Top Ten graduate school). To tell me that I am so gullible that I would allow another person to implant these memories in my head is incredibly insulting.

Stepping off the soapbox…

Now that I have that off my chest, I will tell you how I respond … My sister and I have recovered numerous memories of the same events, and we have never seen the same therapist. We haven’t even lived in the same state since I started having flashbacks in 2003. So, to implant this many memories with this level of detail in two women living in two different states who do not see the same people regularly sounds like a much greater conspiracy theory than the truth that it happened.

It is well documented that young children (and even many adults) repress traumatic memories. Soldiers frequently return from battle with no memory of seeing their buddies’ body parts blown to bits. I know a five-year-old boy who was in a fatal car crash that took his mother’s life. He has no memory of that event, yet nobody questions that it happened. Everyone gets that the event was so traumatizing that he has repressed the memory. So, why does society at large have so much trouble understanding that a child exposed to repeated traumas would repress those memories?

Bottom line – Society at large does not “get it” about child abuse, and they are never going to “get it” unless we educate them. We need to do all we can to educate society about the epidemic of child abuse and the aftereffects. We need to stop sitting by silently listening to ignorant comments and educate these people. Of course, you need to heal enough to feel strong enough to take this on, but when you are ready, join the fight! If 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5-7 men spoke out about the truth of child abuse, it wouldn’t take that long to educate the world.

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On my blog entry entitled Judging Your Childish Actions Through Adult Eyes, a reader posted the following comment:

I’m right now dealing with coming to terms with the fact that what happened was a big deal. I have seen it as “no big deal” because that is what I was taught. Even now, as an adult, I have trouble seeing it as a big deal. If I hear about it happening to someone else (a child in the present day, for example), I am furious. But, I am having trouble giving myself that gift. I feel very few emotions about all of it. ~ Marie

Minimizing the abuse (seeing the abuse as “no big deal”) is a normal reaction to child abuse, and it really does make sense once you understand where it is coming from. Judith Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery explains this reaction well. I strongly recommend this book, especially if you are having trouble accepting that your own abuse was a big deal. I found this book to be very helpful because it focuses on all forms of trauma (not just child abuse), which helped me see the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a disorder rather than as a collection of symptoms that were unique to me (and not a big deal).

Here are an excerpt that explains this phenomenon of seeing the child abuse as “no big deal:”

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. To preserve her faith in her parents, she must reject the first and most obvious conclusion that something is terribly wrong with them. She will go to any lengths to construct an explanation for her fate that absolves her parents of all blame and responsibility.

All of the abused child’s psychological adaptations serve the fundamental purpose of preserving her primary attachment to her parents in the face of daily evidence of their malice, helplessness, or indifference. To accomplish this purpose, the child resorts to a wide array of psychological defenses. By virtue of these defenses, the abuse is either walled off from conscious awareness and memory, so that it did not really happen, or minimized, 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. ~ pp. 101-102

There’s so much more, which is why this book is in my list of recommended book resources. If you find this helpful, I would read this book or at least the chapter devoted to child abuse.

Minimizing the abuse make perfect sense. When you are a helpless child, the alternatives are to “forget” the abuse (repress the memories), minimize it, or sink into utter despair. By minimizing the abuse, the child holds onto hope that the abuse is survivable. It is a coping mechanism that enabled us to survive the abuse.

Many of you have read my story, which I share beginning here. While there is no question that my abuse was severe by anyone’s standards, I, too, struggled with believing it was no big deal, others had it worse, etc. The bottom line is that any abuse is a big deal, and even one time is too many.

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On my blog entry entitled A (Helpful) Christian Perspective on Forgiveness after Child Abuse, a reader posted the following comment:

I just wishi I could actually feel anger and hatred toward my abusers….at this point I just feel numb about it and frankly don’t even believe most of the stories the other parts of me tell. ~ Barbi

I was once in that same place. My self-perception was that I had a very long fuse. I would never stand up for myself or show any anger (or really even feel anger). However, about once a year, I would “blow up.” I now recognize that an angry alter part would finally have enough and express my repressed anger.

I told my therapist that I really did not feel any anger toward my abusers. I also felt very detached from the abuse, as you describe. My therapist assured me that I did have anger inside that I needed to express. When I was ready, I would experience the anger. I did not believe him.

I believe it is the book The Courage to Heal that calls anger “the backbone to healing.” That book, along with the Survivor to Thriver manual, provide good exercises for tapping into your anger. I was actually afraid to tap into mine. I knew that, based upon the memories that I had already recovered, the anger had to be intense. If I turned the anger “on,” could I then turn it back “off”?

The first step to tapping into your anger is believing your memories. Even though they might not feel like “your” memories, they are. You need to start accepting that those memories are of events that really happened to you. I know how hard that is to do, but it is crucial to healing.

Then, choose an exercise to give your anger a voice. I chose punching pillows. I felt an idiot for the first three punches, but the anger exploded out of me with the fourth punch. It was empowering to tap into the strength of that anger, and my anxiety symptoms eased immediately afterward.

I have heard many wonderful suggestions for processing anger:

  • Beat the ground with a baseball bat
  • Punch pillows
  • Take a kickboxing class
  • Throw objects against a wall
  • Visualize beating up your abuser
  • Write your abusers’ names on red balloons and pop them

I find that doing something physical is helpful when you are first learning how to tap into your anger. Invite your anger out, and tell yourself that it is okay to feel and express your anger. Then, give one of these tools (or something similar) a try and see what happens.

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Last week, I blogged about child-on-child abuse. It occurred to me that I have not yet covered sibling abuse directly on my blog, so I will rectify that today.

Sibling abuse is when a child abuses his or her sibling. The victim can be older, the same age (a twin), or younger, and the child abuse can be physical, sexual, and/or emotional. This form of child abuse is much more common than most people appreciate. In fact, three of my close off-line friends suffered from this form of abuse.

As with other types of child-on-child abuse, the victims of sibling abuse often feel invalidated because the abuser was a child (instead of an adult) and because the abuser was a sibling. In many cases, the parents had at least some knowledge of the abuse but dismissed it, minimized it, or flat out denied it.

I have heard many times that half of the long-term emotional damage of child abuse comes from the abuse itself, but the other half of the damage comes from the parents’ or guardians’ reactions to the abuse. If two children experience the same exact abuse, the one with a supportive family that got the child into therapy and sought justice will not experience the same amount of collateral emotional damage as experienced by the child whose parents knew and did nothing.

For sibling abuse to happen, the parents have to, at the very least, be somewhat detached from their children. If the parents are not part of the abuse, then they are clearly not supervising the children very well if one child is abusing the other. Even if the parents truly had no idea that that sibling abuse was happening, the victim is going to view the family dynamic as a conspiracy that threw him under the bus, and the victim has every reason to feel this way.

As I have shared before, it is not developmentally appropriate for young children to keep secrets. For a child to keep the parents in the dark about ongoing sibling abuse, there were, at best, dysfunctional dynamics going on in the family. Bottom line – It is a parent’s job to keep the child safe. If your sibling abused you and your parents did not intervene, then your parents failed you. Sibling abuse IS abuse, just as much as any other form of child abuse.

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I had another tough week with the Beth Moore Bible study I am working through entitled Breaking Free. Don’t worry – What I have to talk about today is not religion-based, so there are no religion triggers in it.

This week’s focus is on childhood dreams from girlhood and the ways that your faith can fulfill those dreams. I felt like a fish out of water, and recognizing my lack of these dreams hurt … I guess because it drives home just how different my childhood was and how this was another loss for me to grieve from childhood.

Beth Moore says that all young girls have the following four dreams and that this is one reason little girls love fairy tales:

  1. To be a bride
  2. To be beautiful
  3. To be fruitful
  4. To live happily ever after

We were supposed to put a check mark by each one that we remember dreaming about as a little girl. I could not check any of them.

I had no dreams of growing up to be beautiful because I “knew” I was not beautiful as a child. My mother forced me to keep my hair in a boyish cut and dressed me in boyish clothing. Until I hit puberty, people constantly thought I was a boy. On top of that, I saw myself as “ugly” because of the abuse.

Quite frankly, I have no desire to be “beautiful” today because I don’t want to attract anyone’s sexual attention (not even hub’s.). The more beautiful a woman is, the more men think about her sexually, which I see as dangerous. I had a well-meaning friend offer to give me a makeover, and I told her no quite firmly. I am not plucking my eyebrows into a sexy arch, wearing sexier makeup, dressing to flatter my figure, or wearing high heels because all of these things would attract sexual attention, and I don’t want any. I don’t want anyone to see or think about my body. I do believe this ties into why I struggle so much with trying to lose weight even though I work out an hour a day most days each week.

I did not dream of being a bride … I did not think that anyone would want me, and I was frankly shocked when hub did. I definitely had no dreams of being fruitful as a little girl because I saw that as more helpless children that I would have to protect, and my sister was enough. I used to have my Barbies abort their babies, and I hated dolls. You can forget living happily ever after – My dream was to grow big enough that my abusers could no longer hurt me.

And then here was the kicker that made me cry – The question: “Who is someone you are absolutely certain loves you?” and then list how you know. My answer was no one. I might have said my son a couple of years ago, but his mood swings sometimes make me question this. I know I have many people in my life who need me, but “needing” me is not the same thing as “loving” me. I sometimes question if I am in people’s lives because I am “useful” rather than because I am loved.

Do I know in my head that I have people in my life who love me? Yes. Is my heart certain of anyone’s love? No. I am certain that there is not one person in my life who is in it forever and that any of them could leave at any time. Yes, I know that my loved ones who have moved away still love me, but that doesn’t do me a lot of good when they are 8 hours away by car. I feel like I am easy to leave. I don’t begrudge people for following their dreams (or their husbands’ dreams), but it doesn’t change the fact that they leave. So, no – I am not absolutely certain about anyone’s love for me on this planet, and that hurts.

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Yesterday, I blogged about child-on-child abuse. The focus of that blog entry was to validate the experience of anyone who was abused as a child by another child, whether that child was older, the same age, or even younger than the victim. Some of you who read that blog entry might be struggling with guilt and shame because you, as a child, harmed another child. This blog entry is to offer you hope and healing.

I have talked with adult survivors of child abuse who struggle with deep guilt and shame because they, as children, chose to harm another child. One person told me that she was trying to understand what an adult was doing to her, so she repeated the behaviors to a younger child. She deeply regretted her actions and experienced an enormous amount of guilt and shame. Because she saw herself as a child abuser, she limited her own healing work because she did not believe that she deserved to heal since she was “just as bad as” her abuser.

Please hear me: You are NOT like your abuser. I know this because you regret the choices that you made as a child, and you did not continue this behavior into adulthood. This separates you from your abuser. Your adult abuser made a choice as an adult to continue abusing children. You did not. You are not your abuser, and you deserve to heal.

When a child abuses another child and experiences regret, guilt, and shame, the child is typically trying to understand his own abuse. He is doing the wrong thing for a human reason. It is hard to wrap your mind around child abuse when you are a child (and even as an adult!), so it is understandable that a child could make a bad choice in trying to process that information. You were not a “short adult” who thought and reasoned like an adult – you were an abused child trying to make sense out of something that simply makes no sense.

Forgive yourself for being human. Rather than focus on the one time (or handful of times) you made a bad choice as a child, think about the thousands of times that you never harmed a child as an adult. You could have chosen the path of your abuser, but you did not. Children are safe around you, and you would never harm a child as an adult. Focus on who you are today, not on who you were as a wounded and confused child.

None of what I have just said lets you off the hook for atoning for harming another child. Despite the fact that you were a child, you inflicted harm on another person, and that person is wounded because of the actions you took. It is your responsibility to make amends to the extent that your victim will let you. I recommend talking with your therapist about ways that you can atone for what you have done. Some ideas I have (but would talk with your therapist about first) include…

  1. Writing a letter of apology, taking full responsibility for the harm you have inflicted
  2. Sending a copy of The Courage to Heal (for sexual abuse)
  3. Offering to pay for therapy (to the extent that you are able)

Think of what actions would be healing to you if your abuser truly regretted the abuse, and offer those actions to your victim. Be sure to respect your victim’s reaction. If she tells you not to contact her again, then respect her decision. You cannot undo what you have already done, but you can take responsibility for your actions and forgive yourself.

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On my blog entry entitled Abused Children Don’t Have the Option of Saying No, a reader posted the following comment:

To be honest, posts like this invalidate me. My sexual abuse came from a boy who was, while bigger and stronger, only a year older. A lot of people whom I come out to don’t even consider it abuse. ~ Eri

Today I am going to address the victim of child-on-child abuse. Tomorrow, I will address those of you who abused other children as a child who now experience guilt and shame. I hope to provide you with healing while, at the same time, validate the experience of the victims of child-on-child abuse.

I vehemently disagree with the people who are telling Eri that a child cannot be abused by another child. I know adoptive parents who have parented foster children with a history of sexual abuse. These children sexually abused the younger children in the home. It does happen, and it is abuse. The victim of sexual abuse (or any other form of child abuse) experiences trauma from that experience whether the abuser is age 8 or 80. The victims of child-on-child abuse need therapy and to work through the healing process just as much as those of us who were abused by adult abusers.

To quote my therapist, let’s stay out of the abuser’s head. Whether the intention of the abuser was to inflict grievous harm or to understand the abuse inflicted upon himself does not change the experience of the victim. The victim is not privy to what is going on inside of the abuser’s head during the abuse. All the victim knows is that someone he trusted is now forcing him to do something that he does not want to do, and that act of abuse is causing deep emotional pain (and likely physical pain as well).

Children, by nature, are tattletales. If the experience was “normal” consensual child play (“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”), then the child would blab about it. That is simply the way a child’s mind works. A child is not developmentally ready to keep a secret unless that secret is forced upon him. If another child (whether older or younger) forced you to keep a secret as a child after forcing you to participate in any form of abuse, that child was your abuser. Period.

Don’t let anyone else invalidate your experience. Normal child play does not result in nightmares, flashbacks, eating disorders, panic attacks, substance abuse, self-injury, and the myriad of other aftereffects that are common among child abuse survivors. Your abuser does not have to be 18 years old to qualify as a child abuser.

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As I shared yesterday, I recently recovered another flashback. That happened on Wednesday morning last week. I spent that day shaky and on Xanax to get through the day. I did better on Thursday, taking about half the dose of Xanax and starting to pull out of the triggering. I used my many tools to reassure myself that I am now safe. The “what” wasn’t any sort of surprise at this point in my healing. The issue was the “who” combined with another memory of being hurt when I thought I was finally safe.

So, sure enough, guess what arrived in the mail on Friday afternoon (two days later)? Of course, it was a package from my mother/abuser – mailed the very day I had the flashback and arriving on the day that I was finally Xanax-free and feeling much better after the flashback. It put it another away, the unwanted contact from my mother/abuser arrived right when I was feeling safe again.

Just seeing the package with her handwriting triggered me much worse than recovering the flashback did. I checked the mail on my way to pick up my kid from summer camp, and I almost couldn’t drive because I was so upset. I called a friend to calm me down, and she didn’t answer. I then called my sister, who also did not answer, and went off on her voice mail about what the f@#$ this woman wants me with. (For those who don’t know my story, I have cut contact with my mother, but my sister still maintains a dysfunctional relationship with her.)

Next, I called another friend who knows my story and whose kid was in summer camp with mine. I told her I had a package from my mother, I was upset, and that I needed her to take it. I was shaking so badly during the four-mile drive that I had to pull over at a gas station to buy some water to swallow a Xanax.

My friend was waiting at summer camp. The first thing she did was break the package three times. (It had the words “fragile” marked all over it. My sister told me that my mother was planning on hand-delivering a DVD of herself performing music in a group, which is what I am guessing was in the package.) I asked my friend to make sure there is nothing I need to know, such as that she is planning another trip to my city. My friend texted me later that there was nothing I needed to know in the package, and she presumably threw it out for me.

I developed a migraine and went to bed at 5:30 p.m. I watched TV until 8:00 and then fell asleep for ~ 10 hours. I am now up bright and early blogging and hoping that will help me get through this. I did lots of work last night to help calm me down and reassure the terrorized little girl inside that I really am safe. The package coming on the heels of the flashback of never being safe is not helping.

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I am a bit shaky as I write this blog entry because I just recovered another memory that I have been working toward for a while. By the time this blog entry publishes, this will be “old news,” and I will be fine. However, in the moment, I am shaking and have a bad headache.

Here is what I have always remembered:

The summer before my junior year of high school, a rising senior befriended me and recruited me to be on the school’s flag corp. I really did not have much interest in waving a flag around or attending football games, but it meant she and I could hang out, so I joined.

I was not a good member of the team. I got sick or had a debilitating headache before just about every game and competition. I think I only attended one (or possibly two) of the weekly games before abruptly quitting halfway through the season. I have spent my entire life beating myself up for being such a flake.

When I was a junior, there was a sophomore who acted like she knew me, but I did not know her. For two years, she would go out of her way to say, “Hi, Faith” whenever she saw me, but I had no clue who she was or why she kept talking to me. She wound up marrying one of my ex-boyfriends, so she was at my 20-year high school reunion with him. She thanked me for being so nice to her at band camp, and I looked at her like she had two heads because I had no memory of ever going to a band camp.

*****suicide triggers*****

I was suicidal for much of my junior year and even wrote a term paper on teen suicide. I would spend many hours fantasizing about the way I wanted to die. I finally confided in my mother about the suicidal feelings. She responded by laughing about it at church, which got back to me. I would have swallowed a bottle of pills immediately if a friend and his mother had not intervened. They pulled me through, and I found hope again.

*****end suicide triggers*****

My most sadistic abusers, S & L, had three children. The youngest was M, and he was maybe three or four years older than me. I never liked him. After my family moved away, my parents stayed in touch occasionally with that horrid family. When I was around 13, we got together with S & L and M at a country club, and M tried to come onto me. I was so revolted and just wanted to get away.

Here is the missing piece I just recovered:

*****sexual abuse triggers*****

I did go to band camp. Somehow, M was there, and he raped me during the night in a field. I don’t know what he was doing there or how he lured me out of the cabin into the darkness of night, but he did. Maybe my parents sent him to check up on me??

This is why I have had such a tough time recovering this memory. I knew it had to be more trauma (most likely sexual abuse), but I had no aversion to anyone in my high school that raised a red flag as a perpetrator. I never felt unsafe at high school. As I recovered the memory, the “what” came easily, but the “who” kept evading me. It was physically painful to “look” at the face of the person who did this, and then I had a hard time believing what I saw.

This is such a big piece to my high school puzzle – Why I quit the flag corp., which angered a lot of people … Why I struggled with suicidal urges throughout my junior year (band camp was the summer before junior year) … Why I was always sick before any flag corp. event …
I also realize that I have spent decades beating myself up for being a flake when I was really just protecting myself. If M could show up at one flag corp. event, he could show up at others.

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**** religious triggers ****

As I shared previously, I am working through a Bible study right now written by Beth Moore called Breaking Free. Two days of the study during Week 5 are devoted to healing from child victimization. Because I have many readers who are Christians, I thought I would share some of Beth Moore’s insights on forgiveness from a (helpful) Christian perspective.

Beth Moore does not share the details of her child victimization publically, but she has shared that, by the time she first learned what a virgin was, she was ashamed to know that she was not one. She has also shared that the person who raped her was a male authority figure who should have protected her, not harmed her. While I do not agree with everything that worked for her, I think most of what she wrote was helpful. This is definitely the best Christian writing I have seen for addressing healing from child abuse.

Of course, Beth Moore addresses the topic of forgiveness, which is a very touchy subject among child abuse survivors. I really liked what she had to say about it:

Forgiving my perpetrator didn’t mean suddenly shrugging my shoulders, muttering, “OK, I forgive,” and going on as if those things didn’t happen. They did happen. And they took a terrible toll on my life. Forgiveness involved my handing over to God the responsibility for justice. The longer I held on to it, the more bondage strangled the life out of me. God saw every bit of it, and He can far better represent me and uphold my cause. Forgiveness meant my deferring the cause to Christ and deciding to be free from the ongoing burden of bitterness and blame. ~ p. 112

While I would word my perspective on forgiveness differently, I think we are pretty much saying the same thing. Forgiveness has nothing to do with “forgetting” or letting my abuser off the hook. Instead, it is about choosing to stop nursing the bitterness as a gift to myself. By making this choice, I stopped thinking about my abusers so much and also stopped making them a central focus of my life. I was able to use that freed up energy to focus on my own healing and my own life.

She says that the “memories are still painful to me at times, but they no longer have power over me” (p. 112). This has been my experience as well. While I still have the memories of all of the abuse and can now access them at will, they don’t rock me in the way that they once did. They are a fact of my history, but they are not who I am.

Like many of you, I have also heard many unhelpful things about forgiveness from Christians, including from the pulpit. It is refreshing to hear a more realistic view from a prominent Christian teacher who has actually lived through child abuse and can speak from her own personal experience.

Beth Moore also equates the battle of healing from childhood abuse to the battle that David experienced when battling Goliath. She does not minimize the devastation of child abuse at all, which is also very refreshing to read.

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