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I work out at the local YMCA, which is a Judeo-Christian organization that posts different messages espousing religious values all over the premises. One of the messages that is posted everywhere is

God is first, others are second, and I am third.

This saying has always bothered me because I don’t think it is good advice for child abuse survivors. This message assumes that everyone is naturally selfish and thinks about his or her own needs before considering anyone else’s. So, if everyone followed this advice, then everyone would be thinking about other people’s needs first, and we would have a wonderful balance where everyone was interdependent and nobody was taking advantage of anyone else. Sounds great, right?

Here’s the thing – Many child abuse survivors always put themselves last. They are so filled with shame that they question whether they even have the right to exist at all. So, it hardly occurs to a shame-filled child abuse survivor to put her own needs ahead of anyone else’s. To someone with this mindset, that message is just a reminder that she exists on the very lowest rung of the social ladder and that everyone else’s needs matter more than hers.

Sometimes my needs do have to come first. As an example, when I am sick, I need to be able to get some rest. If I ignore my own need to rest my body, I am not going to be able to meet anyone else’s needs for very long.

Because I was such a people-pleaser for most of my life, I have had to retrain my husband and others who were in my life before therapy that my needs matter, too. Before therapy, I would continue to take care of other people while I was coughing up a lung. By the time I would attend to my own needs, my doctor would be aghast that I waited 22 days to see her when I had a severe case of bronchitis. Meanwhile, I would feel guilty for going to see a doctor at all because I didn’t deserve to “put myself first” by taking time off of work and my other responsibilities to focus on myself.

As with just about every other area of life, I believe that balance is the key. There are some times when I need to suck it up and push through my issues in order to take care of someone else. As an example, when my child is having an asthma flare up, my need for a day of rest has to take a backseat. However, my needs matter, too, and sometimes my needs have to take priority over the needs of others in my life. It’s OK (and necessary) for my needs to be attended to.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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I had an interesting session with my therapist last week. We talked about all of the things that I blogged about and then some. Once we worked through a bunch of that, he asked specifically what was going on in my day-to-day life that precipitated my “breakdown.” He believes that my biggest problem was not taking care of myself. He said that he thinks my “gas tank” reached empty and that there was simply nothing left to keep going.

Looking back over my calendar from the last three months, I think he is right. From January through mid-March, I had a pretty balanced schedule. I rarely worked more than four hours a day, and I was going to the gym and doing yoga/meditation daily. That balance abruptly ended when I started training for my new part-time job in mid-March. I was not given a “heads up” that I needed to set aside 15 to 20 hours a week during training (in addition to the four-hour training sessions each Sunday afternoon), so I had not cleared my calendar of other obligations. That put me working pretty much a full-time schedule with no advanced planning.

After training ended, the close to full-time schedule continued as I prepared to teach my first class for the new job. Then, I did 3.5 weeks of tutoring at a close to a full-time schedule. That was mid-March through the beginning of June on a close to full-time schedule without letting go of other obligations (blogging, leading a Bible study, etc.)

I kept telling myself that I only had to get through X number of weeks, and then I could rest. Tutoring ended, but then I was slammed with “last week of school” and other scheduling issues. My kid had a doctor’s appointment and ball practice on Monday. I led Bible Study on Wednesday. I had to go to my kid’s school for an awards presentation at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, and then school was out for the summer after that, which meant I was taking care of my kid and not resting on Thursday and Friday. My kid had an ear infection, so I had to take him to the doctor on Friday.

Hub pulled me out of bed in the middle of the night having a full-fledged panic attack. He has been depressed and anxious ever since, constantly talking about how miserable he is and how he thinks the stress is going to kill him.

I thought I could finally rest the next week (first week of summer while my son went to summer camp). Instead, I babysat a friend’s very difficult kid on Monday, went to a retirement party on Tuesday that I found out about at the last minute, and had Bible study on Wednesday. I planned a “rest” day on Thursday, but my kid’s ear was still bothering him too much to go to camp on Thursday – goodbye “rest” day.”

Also during this week, things blew up at part-time job #1 with students not having reliable access to the online classroom. These are all entry-level students with three weeks of college under their belt, so I was fielding panicked phone calls and emails for four days until the connectivity issues were resolved.

Add to that having several friends in crisis during the same week. One found out that her child was being cyberbullied. Another was freaking out about a college project. A third was “losing it” over issues with her kids. I told the third that we needed a “mental health” day on Friday so we should go to the movies. While I enjoyed the movie and chit chat, the outing came at the expense of rest.

By Friday, I could barely move my body and feared that I had contracted mono. I canceled my Saturday morning plans, fearing that I was sick. I hosted Book Club on Saturday night and had to spend a lot of time on Friday and Saturday preparing (cooking and cleaning) as well as ran my son to the doctor’s office again for the same ear infection.

Sunday was Father’s Day, so I had to be “on” to make it about hub, who ended the day by saying that it had not been a “good” Father’s Day despite all that I had done. I thought that, if I could just make it to Monday, I could rest. My plan was to drop my kid off at camp, work out at the gym, do yoga/meditation, and then do whatever I felt like doing for the day. Then, the camp would not take my kid’s medications at the bus drop-off point: I had to drive all the way out to Timbuktu to hand-deliver the medications, so my “me” time was replaced with an 80-minute round trip drive to this camp in the middle of nowhere.

That’s when I snapped. I kept holding it together until a later date when I could rest. My “rest” day kept being taken away, and I was completely spent with nurturing everyone else. Then, when all I needed was five minutes of nurturing from someone else and couldn’t get it, the bottom fell out.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I am not quite sure if what I am going through is a break**through** or a break**down**. All I know is that it is very intense.

Thank you to those of you who posted responses to Annie. Annie needed to be heard – badly.

I apologize for posting out of order. I actually wrote yesterday’s blog first but then needed immediate feedback for Annie’s stuff. I am feeling less out of control and like this makes some sort of weird sense. I think I am integrating a “large” alter part that endured some of the worst abuse (the splinters, etc.) as well as some of my deepest unmet needs.

I felt like I was losing my mind. The adult part of myself understood why my friends were not available when I called. Two of them were at work. One was at the gym. Another was at the doctor’s office. I don’t know where the hell the other three were, but they weren’t answering their phones. They are all stay-at-home moms with their kids home for the summer, so I am sure they were tending to them. I also knew that my therapist never, ever answers his cell phone. Protocol is to leave a message and then he calls you back.

It doesn’t matter how much I knew all of this logically. When I was so badly triggered and couldn’t reach anyone, I wanted to stamp my feet like a child, and I was sooooo friggin’ angry at all of them. That part of myself did not remotely care why nobody was around to take care of her/me … only that I was, once again, having to face it all alone, even when I had done everything “right.”

All adult responsibilities were completely overwhelming. My kid wound up not taking a shower that night because I simply could not “parent,” and hub is too wrapped up in his own depression issues to parent at all. The next day, it took me hours to work up the energy to go to the grocery store. When the store was out of the cut of meat I needed for dinner, I almost cried and felt like having a full-fledged tantrum. The adult part of me thought quickly and redirected the child part of myself to another dish.

I have dealt with alter parts my entire life and have been “whole” enough to stop losing time for years, but I don’t recall ever feeling as out of control as I have with this alter part/wounded inner child part. I feel immobilized – like someone is asking an eight-year-old child to pay the bills, cook the dinner, and take care of an “older child” by herself.

Is this a breakthrough or a breakdown? I am not quite sure which yet. At least I am not crying nonstop anymore.

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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On my blog entry entitled Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID): Are Any Alter Parts “Bad”?, a reader posted the following comment:

It is the little girl that is the worst problem. I know this sounds terrible, because she is a little girl, but the sorrow and the fear are more than I can tolerate EVEN with the so-called ‘dark’ part available to help condemn the crime and not its little victim…Then when I crash, she escapes and makes my life a miserable hell, but I still cannot remember and nothing is resolved. The whole thing just keeps repeating and it’s finally driven me to drink. I’m not sure if things can ever change, but most of the time I am able to keep a hope that they might. I wish they could because I need that kid to keep from falling down and dying prematurely. She is the one who writes stories, takes the photographs… she even used to sing, but that has been many years ago now. She is the creativity that makes life worth living but I can’t have her here because sometimes she STABS me with her art. She makes horrors to torment me, yet I cannot remember. Sometimes this makes me dread her even though she’s just a kid. ~ Ethereal Highway

What Ethereal Highway is describe here is her repository of unmet needs. She experiences the unmet need as an alter part. Other child abuse survivors experience the unmet need in other ways. No matter how we experience it, unmet need is very tough to work through.

The problem is that we, as abused children, did not believe that we were allowed to need. Our need made us vulnerable, and we hated ourselves for having needs — even basic needs that we would never begrudge our children for having, such as the need for love, safety, security, or food.

To this day, I hate to feel needy. My loathing of needing anyone or anything actually stands in the way of my healing process at times because I choose to stay “sick” in some areas of my life when the alternative is needing something from somebody else. Human beings were intended to be interdependent, so it is normal for me to need another person from time to time, and yet I resist feeling need with all that I have.

I have known people without dissociative identity disorder (DID) who have nearly been driven mad by the needy part inside. The book When You’re Ready by Kathy Evert and Inie Bijkerk provides an excellent example of this. The woman was sexually abused by her mother (among others). In order to survive, she split off the needy inner child and moved on with her life as an adult woman who had walled off the need into the inner little girl.

When the woman was ready to heal, the needy inner little girl would not go away, no matter how much the woman wanted her to. The little girl needed basic needs met, such as cuddling with a teddy bear and sucking her thumb. The intensity of the unmet needs overwhelmed the woman. The book chronicles her healing process as she accepted this need as “mine” and healed it.

The drinking is a way to keep the needs of the inner little girl separate. This cycle will not end until you are ready to embrace that need as yours and begin healing it. I strongly recommend reading the book When You’re Ready to help you with this. I recommended it to another online friend (who had not been sexually abused by her mother), and she found this book to be a very helpful resource in understanding herself.

Facing and embracing the need is very hard. I am fortunate in that I split off my unmet needs into many different parts. I cannot imagine the enormity of facing a deep reservoir of unmet need all stored in one place. You can heal this part of yourself, just as the woman in the book did.

Photo credit: Faith Allen

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On my blog entry entitled Yearning for a Mother after Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse, a reader posted the following comment:

For me, this is possibly the most painful repercussion of what I experienced growing up. For much of my life I have felt deep shame over this longing for a mother, and it has caused me a great deal of agony in relationships with older women around me.

It is so affirming to hear the voices of other women who are “in the middle” of this experience and feeling the same thing. It makes me feel more normal, less alone. I wonder if there are other voices of women who maybe have found different measures of healing of this gaping hole in their hearts? Does it happen? Is it possible? And probably all of us have stories of parts of this place in us that have experienced healing. I’d really like to hear about that. ~ Blueorchid8

I have found that the loss of a mother-daughter relationship is a loss to be grieved, just like any other loss. Sometimes, like when I wrote that blog entry, I feel the pain from the hole left in my heart in never connecting with my mother. Most of the time, though, I don’t feel (or notice?) the pain.

I have had to grieve multiple losses in my life, and the process of grieving those losses is always the same. I must face the reality of the loss and allow myself to experience the depth of the pain from that loss. After this, I adjust to the reality of my life without whatever it is that I am missing, whether that loss is a pregnancy, a deceased loved one, or the loss of a mother-daughter relationship. The grieving process brings you to a place where you sometimes feel the loss, but it becomes more of a wistful longing than a sharp pain.

I have found ways to meet some of my needs through friendships. For example, when I was sick last week, a friend invited me over so my kid could play with hers, and she made me some hot chocolate with mini marshmallows in it. It was just a small gesture, but it was just the kind of nurturing that I needed. I did not need a mother or older woman to do this for me. This small act of kindness met a need, and I did not once long for a mother the entire time that I was sick.

There are other areas of my life in which I must make do for myself as if I were an orphan, and that just plain stinks. It generally does not hurt, though. Instead, it makes me angry and frustrated with my life at times. I try to remember that I will not always feel so frustrated and that those feelings will pass. I have varying levels of success with that thought process.

Have any of you found ways to fill this hole in your heart?

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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On my blog entry entitled Unmet Needs after Child Abuse: Birth to Age One, a reader posted the following comment:

This is where it begins: at the very beginning. These unmet needs damaged us from the moment we were born. How do you undo damage that began that early? How do you heal pain that began from the moment you entered this world? How do you counter a lesson that was instilled from birth? The lesson that I am worthless was the first one I learned. It was reinforced over and over, moment by moment. It was communicated by word, by look, by action, by lack of action and neglect. How do you unlearn a belief like that?? What do you do with a pain that runs that deep?? Sometimes it seems like an insurmountable task. Sometimes it seems impossible and hopeless. But… I carry on.

I, too, have wrestled with these questions. My abuse began at the hand of my own mother. When you were betrayed by the first person you ever loved (from when you were still in the womb), how do you ever move past that? How do you ever learn to love and trust after that kind of betrayal?

If being abused was the very beginning of my existence, then I believe the answer would be that I could not move past it. If we assume that we are born into this world as empty slates, and then all of the messages that were written on that empty slate were that I was worthless, then how would it be possible for me ever to move past this?

And yet, children are not born as empty slates. They exhibit their own personalities from birth forward, and no amount of parenting rights or wrongs can change who the child was meant to be. Despite being silenced as a child, I grew into a chatty adult. Nothing that any of my abusers ever did to me had the power to change who I was at my core.

Why not?

I believe the answer is that birth is not the beginning of who we are. I believe that we exist before we are born and that we continue to exist after we die. In short, I believe in reincarnation.

I believe that, when we are between physical lifetimes, we are basking in unending love. I believe that my spirit was filled with this deep love when it entered into the body growing in my mother’s womb. I believe this explains how, after a childhood filled with severe abuse, I could still be a compassionate child and grow into a compassionate adult.

I also believe that we have access to this unending love throughout our lifetimes. I do this through meditation. I use yoga to help silence my mind, and then I use meditation so my spirit can tap back into that unending source of love. I no longer believe that the love available to me on this earth is limited. I can access deep, rich love anytime I need it.

I also feel this unending love all around me – in the beautiful fall foliage, in the colors of the sky as the sun sets, and in the beauty of the water lilies on the pond near my house. We are surrounded by love if we know where to look for it. By being surrounded by love, I am never alone.

My abusers tried to break me, but they failed. They might have shaped much of who I thought I was, but, ultimately, who I am is timeless and cannot be stunted by the evil actions of others. Who I am transcends the abuse and even this lifetime. This is how I know that I can meet those unmet needs.

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Photo credit: Rosanne Mooney

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