Archive for January, 2012

Yesterday, I began exploring the question of how to measure healing from child abuse. I focused on how my sister and I endured similar abuses but reacted very differently. Most people (from an outwardly American measure) would call me the “successful” one because I have had more stability in my life (financial, marital, etc.). However, my stability came at the cost of losing connection with the core of who I am. I lived most of my life pretending (and believing) I was someone I was not. I lived most of my life playing a role and shoving down my core beneath a bunch of food (through a binge eating disorder).

Contrast this with my sister, whose life was less stable until about 10 years ago. (Both of us started our healing processes about the same time.) Ten years ago, her marriage fell apart, she became a single mother of two young children, and she struggled financially. Most people in our lives thought her life was falling apart, but she will tell you that was the moment she took her life back. While she had always been connected with who she was, she spent many years numbing herself to her truths. The “chaos” in her life was actually what she needed to go through to take back her life – to say, “I accept myself the way I am, and I am not going to live my life in a way that anyone else imposes upon me any longer.”

I have no question she was in a much more emotionally healthy place than I was that year, despite the fact that her refrigerator was empty while mine was full. There is more to emotional healthiness than your bank account, and financial stability can come at the cost of yourself.

Many people seem to measure success from the outside. My “outside” really has not changed that much from before to after therapy and healing work. I am still married, still have food in the fridge, still have a job, etc. My external story does not reflect the healing work that has taken place inside of me.

For me, my hard work of healing is reflected in how I feel living in my own skin. Ten years ago, if someone posted a comment that disagreed with me on something meaningless, it would shake how I felt about myself. I would feel shame because I said something “wrong.” I would stew about it for hours – “Michael thinks I was wrong about X. I am a stupid and bad person.” I would binge eat to stuff down those feelings. I would cry because I was such a loathsome person, and I would anxiously check my blog until Michael posted again and didn’t seem mad at me. If we wasn’t mad at me, maybe I was OK and dodged a bullet – he didn’t yet see what a repulsive person I am. Side note to Michael ~ Thanks for being a good sport about me picking on you for my example. :0)

I didn’t write a blog 10 years ago, and you can see why! However, I went through this dynamic on message boards for adoptive mothers.

Contrast that with today. Michael and A x, who are two of my most active readers, posted alternative points of view on that blog entry. I did not feel shame, cry, or worry that they would never read my blog again. I read what they had to say and considered their points of view. I thought about to what degree they “heard” something different than I am intended to say and clarified accordingly. I thought about areas in which they heard me just fine and simply had a different opinion. I considered their points of view and tried to see my words through their eyes. From there, I thought about where I stand after scrutinizing my own views.

As typically happens, their thoughts spawned another blog topic. :0) What does healing mean to me? Part of what healing means to me is that my thoughts and other people’s thoughts no longer change who I think I am or how I feel about myself. That’s a HUGE change for me!

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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On my blog entry entitled Why Do Some Child Abuse Survivors Fare Better than Others?, a reader posted the following comment:

This does lead potentially to more interesting questions such as how do each of us measure our healing. I think for me freedom and joy would be key, as they were most stolen. ~ A x

I think that is a great question worth exploring together!

In the blog entry that spawned the comment, I was exploring (with no real answer) why some child abuse survivors fare better than others when they have endured similar trauma. As an example, my sister and I endured most of the same traumas. From the outside, I have “fared better” in several ways if you compare us from an external perspective (from an American point of view – I know that different cultures have different external measures). However, she definitely fared better than me in many important internal ways.

For example, I split into DID and lived most of my life from the perspective of a very innocent host personality. I disconnected so completely from many parts of myself – the core of who I am – because I could not accept the truth of having been raped by men. While I dissociated other parts, that particular piece of the trauma was so horrific to me that I rejected myself to avoid dealing with it.

Contrast this with my sister – She has always remembered everything but compartmentalized the memories so she could access them at will without having them ever-present as she went about her life. Externally, her life has been harder in several ways that I won’t go into here. Short version – her life had less external stability. That being said, she never rejected who she was as I did which kept her truer to herself than I ever was.

This very connectedness with her history directly led to many of the issues that caused chaos in her life. If you define “success” by stability, I was the more successful one. However, if you define “success” as staying connected to who you are (which, in my opinion, is a key to healing), she was much more “successful” than I was despite her outward chaos. So much of the healing process for me has involved dismantling the lies I built my identity around and discovering myself. My sister never needed to do any other this – she always knew who she was, but that connectedness led her through years of chaos. We have both suffered and struggled to move toward emotional health, but we have had to slay different demons.

More tomorrow…

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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Yesterday, I talked about healing from abuse you don’t remember due to being very young when it happened here. Today, I will address healing abuse you don’t remember due to having been drugged when it happened.

I, myself, was drugged as part of my abuse. I know this through connecting the dots of my flashbacks, not from recovering an actual memory of ingesting a drug. In 2004, I was diagnosed with allergies and started receiving weekly allergy shots. Each time I received a shot, I experienced a strong headache that would not go away no matter how little was injected into my body. My allergy doctor referred me to a local headache specialist who could find nothing wrong with me.

I started paying attention to my reaction to the shots and realized that getting a shot was triggering me. It didn’t matter what substance was entering my body. It was the shot itself that was causing the problem. I employed the methods I use to calm myself down when triggered, and … voilà … I was able to manage the headaches.

I have some triggers for which I have not recovered any memories, and I suspect the reason is that I was drugged when I experienced the trauma. One example would be my very strong aversion to splinters. If I see a splinter in myself or another person, I get extremely lightheaded and have to do deep breathing and get away from the splinter to calm myself down so I don’t faint. I don’t have this reaction to anything else I can think of – not to blood, shots, or other more common triggers.

At this point, I don’t feel the need to go searching for the cause of the trigger. If I need to remember in order to heal, I trust that I will. If the cause happened while drugged, I might never recover the memory, and that is OK, too. It is enough for me to recognize that splinters are a trigger for me and to give myself permission to have a friend or doctor deal with my child’s splinters since I cannot.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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On my blog entry entitled Can You “Let Go” of Abuse You Don’t Remember?, a reader asked the following question:

If either the early age or later possible drugging makes those memories permanently inaccessible, how am I supposed to heal? Is there a way to process what I may never recover? If not am I just condemned to half a life? ~ PW

I first learned about healing from preverbal abuse when reading Kathy Evert’s book on mother-daughter sexual abuse entitled When You’re Ready: A Woman’s Healing from Childhood Physical and Sexual Abuse by Her Mother. You can read what I wrote previously here. While in therapy, the author recovered sensations that she didn’t know how to process because they were preverbal. She had no language attached to them, so they didn’t make sense to her.

Thankfully, the release of preverbal memories made sense to her therapist. Her therapist encouraged her to allow her body to release the memories just as she would allow her brain to release flashbacks. It was a grueling time, but she did heal by allowing her body to release the pain.

Over on Isurvive (a message board for child abuse survivors), we had a discussion of this topic. One member was releasing lots of body memories from preverbal abuse and felt like she was losing her mind. She felt an uncontrollable need to be comforted in a way that would comfort a baby, which wasn’t easy in an adult’s body. She really needed to be “rocked,” so she bought herself a hammock to give herself the sensation of being rocked. As soon as she did this, she was successful in processing the memories. She would release them and then self-soothe through rocking herself in the hammock.

As other child abuse survivors have explained to me, healing from preverbal memories involves feeling unpleasant sensations in your body that don’t really make sense. You might feel like you are falling, feel like your body is burning, or whatever simulates what you actually experienced before you developed language. If you don’t fight or analyze those feelings and, instead, just let your body tell the story, people tell me that they experience deep healing.

Photo credit: Faith Allen

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Sukoon’s comment on this blog entry inspired this post. Sukoon talked about feeling guilty for burdening family members with knowledge of the abuse. This is a common struggle for child abuse survivors.

Here’s the irony – We worry about burdening adults with hearing about abuse that we actually experienced as children. Am I the only one who sees how warped this dynamic is? I have told multiple people, “I assure you that it was much harder for me to live through these things as a kid than for you to hear about them now as an adult.”

I no longer worry so much about other people’s reactions to hearing about my abuse, but in the early years, I took a lot of responsibility for protecting others from hearing about it. I would talk in generalities about the abuse because I feared they couldn’t handle hearing the specifics. To this day, people like my grandmother have no knowledge of the abuse because I don’t want to burden her with it in her old age. Sadly, since healing from child abuse is such a big part of who I am, the net result is that my grandmother doesn’t really know me. It’s sad that she is being deprived of seeing the “real me” because of my choice to protect her from the ugliness of my childhood.

I found that the best support people were fellow child abuse survivors. They “got” it, and they could hear about my abuse experiences without burdening me with the need to “protect” them. The irony is that child abuse survivors are much more likely to be triggered by my story. However, child abuse survivors are also amazingly strong, which gives them the courage to read my story and then provide me with the support I need. The child abuse survivor community at Isurvive provided me with ~ 90% of the support I received in my early years of healing.

I only share the specifics of my story with a handful of people in my offline life. I have provided the URL to this blog to some of them and let them choose how much they want to know. I try to let the other person set the pace for how much she can handle learning about my history. As I continue to heal, I feel less of a need to share my story. However, I don’t see how I can develop a deep friendship with someone who knows nothing at all about my history.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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One question that plagues me from time to time is why some child abuse survivors seem to fare better than others. This was another issue explored in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. Some of the traumatized characters couldn’t survive without staying inebriated, and some had their sanity crack. However, others found a way to go on and find meaning in their lives. Why did some far better than others?

I don’t need a fictitious story to point out this difference to me. I have lived it. Like attracts like, so most of my pre-therapy friendships were with traumatized people. My heart breaks for how some of these people’s lives have turned out. The last time I talked to one, she was facing a prison sentence. The last time I talked to another, she had lost custody of her children and was battling addiction.

My life hasn’t been easy, but it looks pretty successful from the outside. This year, hub and I will have been married for 20 years. I have a great kid and several close friends. I don’t battle addiction, have had no run-ins with the law, and am not facing bankruptcy (another story of another traumatized friend). What makes me so special?

Some people speculate that it is the level of trauma involved, but I am not buying it. I am not saying that my trauma was the worst trauma ever endured by anyone, but let’s just say that few people would want to get into a p#$$ing match with me about whose trauma was “worse.” I, personally, don’t like to compare traumas – even one incident of trauma is too many. Some of the strongest and most functional people I have met endured severe trauma – severe enough to break many others.

I don’t think the level of trauma determines who breaks and who survives. I think it has more to do with hope. I am not sure that my story would have the same ending if not for my sister. Once my sister was born (when I was two years old), I experienced pure love. I think knowing that kind of pure love existed in the world was enough to help me fight back. For what it’s worth, the traumatized characters who fared better in The Hunger Games seemed to be those who had someone to live for.

Healing from child abuse takes an enormous amount of strength and courage, so I don’t point my finger at people like the friends I have referenced who have broken under the strain of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, I would like to understand what was so special about me to overcome the odds and heal when so many others have broken. I really think the difference is hope.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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This week, I have been talking about the need to remember enough of the trauma to “let go.” I have also been sharing some personal examples of how this process has worked for me. You can catch up here and here.

I don’t want anyone to think that there is something “wrong” with them if they don’t experience the same results that I did in “letting go” of my most traumatizing memory in about three weeks’ time. Healing is not a race or a competition.

I don’t think it is possible to “let go” of trauma in three weeks without a significant amount of practice and experience in working through trauma. When I first started on my healing journey, I recovered memories of the mother-daughter sexual abuse. My “breakthrough crisis” lasted for six weeks – every single minute of six weeks. I then got a four-hour reprieve where I realized there was actually life after this horrifying experience. When the four hours ended, I was right back where I was before – drowning in emotional pain – but this time I had the **hope** of a future that was not consumed by pain.

My therapist assured me that the healing process would move me toward shorter difficult periods (from six weeks to hours or days) and that the easier periods would grow longer (from four hours to weeks or even months!). Of course, I had a hard time believing this in the moment, but it gave me hope.

Healing from child abuse is a process of remembering what happened and finding a way to accept it as part of who you are. The way you get from A to B is going to vary from person to person. For me, yoga and meditation were a huge part of this process. For Michael, yoga is just about the last thing he would do, but art has been very helpful. Art is not my thing (unless you classify writing as “art”), so many of the tools he shares are not tools that I have used. However, we are both moving from A to B one trauma at a time.

The more experience I have in healing from trauma, the better prepared I am to navigate through new memories. My new memories seem to be surfacing about once every six months now, and I am growing more confident in my ability to work through them. If I could just “let it go” without having to remember, I would. That hasn’t been my experience. I need remember enough to heal, and I cannot “let go” until I remember and process.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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