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Archive for July, 2010

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.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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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.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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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.

Photo credit: Amazon.com

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This is the final post in a series on feeling responsible for the child abuse you endured. The series begins here .

Now the final truth — Children do not act and react like adults and should not be judged for not doing what an adult would have done.

In Janet’s comment, she said the following:

I even went along with what [my abuser] asked me. Doesn’t that make me worse than her? Aren’t I the one still hurting me now? ~ Janet

It is very easy in hindsight to play the “should have, would have, could have” game. From the perspective of safety and an adult body, it is easy to look back on your decisions as a child and judge yourself for not acting like an adult. While this is a very natural thing to do, it is extremely unfair to your wounded inner child.

My nine-year-old son does not think like I do in part because a child does not have the ability to think past this moment. As adults, we have many years of life under our belts, and we know that three months is not a very long period of time. As a child, summer vacation seemed to last F-O-R-E-V-E-R because three months out of a seven-year-old child’s life is a pretty sizable percentage whereas three months out of a forty-year-old person’s life really is not that long.

Until a child reaches the age of 18, he cannot sign a binding contract without a parent or guardian cosigning. Why? Because children simply do not think like adults do. They do not have the ability to think through the long-term consequences of their choices. My son would rather live on candy and popcorn than eat his vegetables because candy and popcorn taste better. At age nine, he does not appreciate that his body needs vitamins to grow big and strong. The pleasure of a better taste in the moment is all he sees: he cannot think through the short-term “sacrifice” of eating his broccoli to the long-term benefit of developing a healthier body. That is why he has a parent to make these decisions for him.

When your abuser hurt you, you were just a child. You believed in the existence of Santa Claus. (Think about that – You really believed that one person could deliver presents to every single home in the world in one night!) You were not a short adult. You were a child with very limited life experience.

I, too, had a very hard time with this. I hated the little girl I was and judged her so harshly. What really helped me was finding a picture of myself at the age that the abuse was happening (which was, unfortunately, during most of my childhood). I chose a picture of myself when I was two years old. I hated the child in that picture.

I forced myself to stop seeing that little girl as “me.” Instead, I imagined that this was another little girl that I was seeing for the first time. When I could separate myself from this little girl, it changed my perspective. I noticed how tiny her hands and feet were. I noted the boyish haircut and clothing that made her look more like a boy than a girl. When I was ready, I noticed the pain in this little girl’s eyes. Just about every picture of my son from age two has him grinning ear-to-ear, but this little girl looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. When I saw her as a separate little girl, she broke my heart.

As I felt a little compassion for the girl in the picture, I developed a little compassion for myself. I carried that picture around in my purse and looked at it often. Each time, I felt a little more love for her. I wanted to reach into the photograph, hold her in my arms, and give her love. She so desperately needed love. The more I grew to love that little girl, the more I embraced my inner child and learned how to love myself.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I working through a series on feeling responsible for the child abuse you endured. The series begins here .

Now the fourth truth — Hating yourself instead of your abuser is a coping mechanism.

In Janet’s comment, she said the following:

If by chance I remember a feature of [my abuser’s] face, or remember an instance of something she did to me, I don’t feel any anger or hatred towards her. I feel it towards myself. What does that make me? ~ Janet

It makes you human, Janet. It also makes you a “normal” child abuse survivor.

Once again, we need to go back to the mindset of a child. As I shared previously, my nine-year-old son is strong-willed. He also has a temper. A big difference between my childhood and his is that it is safe for him to express his anger. I have taught him that it is okay to feel angry, but he is responsible for his actions while angry.

For example, no matter how angry my son gets, it is not okay for him to hurt another living being (person or pet) or harm anyone else’s property. However, it is completely appropriate for him to express his anger in safe ways, such as by punching pillows. My son is very physical, so I encourage him to express his anger using his body as long as he doesn’t hurt anyone else or damage their property.

Child abusers do not teach abused children that is it okay to express their anger. In fact, expressing anger is not even an option for the abused child. Because the child is feeling the emotion of anger (and for good reason), she must do something with that energy. Emotions are meant to be expressed, and they do not simply “go away” when they are repressed. Instead, the anger turns on the person repressing the anger, frequently in the form of anxiety or depression.

I struggled with this enormously before therapy. I repressed my anger so deeply that I truly did not believe that I had any. My therapist assured me that I did and that I would need to give that anger a voice.

The first time I gave my anger a voice was through punching pillows. I decided to invite the anger out by pretending the pillows were my abusers. I felt like a complete idiot with the first three punches, but the anger exploded out of me with the fourth, and I beat the h@#$ out of the pillows in a complete frenzy for 20 minutes. I felt such enormous relief afterward.

I have since moved on to visualization to process my anger. I used to have very angry alter parts that would constantly berate me and blame me for the abuse. I would tell those angry alter parts that their anger was aimed toward my abusers, not me. I would file through the faces of my abusers in my head. When the right abuser’s face appeared (the one that caused that particular anger), I would visualize myself beating the h@#$ out of that abuser. At first, the visualizations disturbed me because they were so graphic, but the relief I felt afterward reassured me that this was a positive thing.

The anger you have directed toward yourself is really unexpressed anger toward your abuser. If you will give that anger a voice and direct it toward your abuser, you will stop feeling so angry with yourself. If you also struggle with anxiety and/or depression, you will also very likely experience improvement in those areas.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I working through a series on feeling responsible for the child abuse you endured. The series begins here .

On to the third truth — Child abusers f@#$ with children’s heads.

In Janet’s comment, she said the following:

I remember her telling me that my sister had told her she didn’t want to do anything with her, so she didn’t do anything to her. That information didn’t give me any ideas. I never told her I didn’t want to. I feel like that makes me my abuser. ~ Janet

This is a classic “mind f@#$,” and child abusers frequently do this. If you believe that you are responsible for the child abuse, then you are not going to tell anyone. After all, it was your own fault, right? WRONG!

First of all, we don’t know that your sister was spared. If she was, it wasn’t because she said no – it was because the abuser feared that your sister was more likely to tell. Child abusers have a “sixth sense” about which children will tell and which won’t.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the same children get abused by multiple child abusers while others are never harmed. Think about it. If you want to harm a child and get away with it, which child would you choose as a victim – the outspoken one or the shy one curled up in the corner? I truly believe that the best defense we can give our children against child abusers is self-confidence. The more self-confident a child is, the less likely she is going to wind up as a child abuse victim. The child abuser will go after the easiest prey when there are options.

Another part of the mind f@#$ is making the child believe that she is responsible because she does not recall being threatened. I struggled with this as well. I recovered numerous memories of my mother sexually abusing me from the time that I was a toddler, but none of those memories included my mother telling me not to tell or threatening me if I told. (I do have memories of such threats from other abusers.)

My therapist said that you don’t have to use words to communicate a threat, and my mother did communicate a threat in one form or another. The way he knows this is by the fact that I did not tell, which is not developmentally appropriate for a young child. As I can tell you from parenting my own young child, privacy goes out the window when you have a young child living in your home. Young children are, by nature, blabbermouths. My husband cannot pass gas without my son announcing it to the world. Little kids simply do not naturally keep secrets. For a child to override the natural instinct to tell everything to everyone, an adult has to communicate some form of threat.

I read an article about this very topic relating to adult women being date raped. Many date rapists do not have any weapons. To subdue their victims, they only need to place a hand on the woman’s collar bone, which provides an unspoken threat that he will choke her if she struggles. Once a man does this, most women will no longer struggle, even though the man has not spoken any threats. If this nonverbal threat is highly effective with adult women, how much more effective will a nonverbal threat be for a child who still believes in the existence of Santa Claus?

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I working through a series on feeling responsible for the child abuse you endured. The series begins here .

Now, let’s discuss the second truth — Saying no is not an option for a child.

If you are not a parent of a young child, you might not fully appreciate just how helpless a little kid is. My nine-year-old son does not have the option of telling me no. When I say that it is time to go to bed or that he must sit at the table at a restaurant, the matter is not open for debate. He is not my peer who can tell me, “No. I would rather stay up until 11:00 p.m.,” or, “No, I would rather run in circles around the table.” I am the parent (the authority figure), and I have all of the power. If he does not obey me, I have the power to take away his toys, a play date, etc.

I also have the power to spank him, beat him, or pretty much do whatever I want with him (not that I do, but I could) because I weigh three times what he does. He cannot overpower me. He is a faster runner than I am, but I can still corner him. Even if he tries to flee in public, numerous adults who outweigh him by three or four times will catch him and return him to me. I provide the food, the clothing, and the shelter. At age nine, he cannot simply move out, get a job, and support himself. He is 100% dependent upon me. The cost of dependence is a lack of freedom. I have the power, so he has to do what I say.

So, let’s say I decide to take advantage of his vulnerability (as my abusers did). Honestly, what can this little boy possibly do about it? Unless I am leaving marks on his body, who is going to believe him? For that matter, who is he going to tell?

Let’s say he believes that he has the option of saying no. How is he going to enforce the “no”? I weight three times what he does. I can pick him up and force him to do anything I want. What power does a little boy have? He has none whatsoever.

In fact, my son does try to tell me no, and he is a strong-willed child. Some children are passive, but my son is not. He is, frankly, bullheaded (like his mother!), and he has been known to dig his heels in over some of the most ridiculous issues. None of the issues are serious like protecting himself from an abuser. These are issues like not wanting to pee in a toilet (when he was three – he knew how to use a toilet but simply did not want to). He can be very stubborn and fight me over issues that he is simply not going to win. I ultimately win these battles of wills because I am the adult, and I have all of the power. If my confident son, who has never been abused, cannot win a battle of wills with me, why do we child abuse survivors believe that we, as insecure, shame-filled abused children, would have had the power to win a battle over keeping our bodies safe?

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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