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Posts Tagged ‘healing from child abuse’

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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I have shared before that I am trying to learn how to “be” with my feelings. I am trying not to analyze them or avoid them. My therapist advised me to do this years ago, but it doesn’t come naturally for me. Who wants to sits around feeling “bad” for days or weeks on end?

For whatever reason, this is what I have felt drawn to do this time around. I have been in a cocooning place, not really wanting much interaction with the outside world. That’s unusual for me because I am a social person. While I do need “me time,” I also draw energy from connecting with other people. However, for the past few weeks, I haven’t been calling many people. I have withdrawn into my shell.

I actually saw some results from this over the past couple of days. Wednesday was less hard. I guess that’s the best way to word it. It felt like I had been carrying weights for a long time, and now some of the weights had been removed. I didn’t feel “good” or “happy.” It just felt “less hard.” I was appreciative of that.

Thursday was even better. I felt “lighter” and more present. I noticed more things around me when I went to the gym and otherwise went about my day. I actually felt like connecting with other people. I called my sister and had lunch with a friend. I was amazed that I actually felt this way, especially with the holidays so close. I am typically getting “worse” by now, not better. I have been trying to observe all of this without analyzing it, which isn’t easy for me.

Sadly, that place did not last. As I engaged in the world again, I found myself getting triggered a lot. I guess that is to be expected at this time of year for me. I am very sensitive to anything that can in any way be construed as criticism at this time of year. I am also very sensitive to other people’s energies, so I can “feel” other people’s negativity.

Perhaps this is a normal part of reengaging in society after disengaging for so long. Again, I am trying not to analyze it, but old habits die hard. I am also trying not to react but just “to be.” I am trying to let go of my own negative reactions to other people’s negativity, and I can see progress there as well.

One piece of self-analysis I was unable to avoid was connecting that I think I am sensitive to other people’s criticism (as I perceive it – I doubt any of these people intended criticism) because I am already working so, so hard through my stuff right now. As Michael shared before, there is no public acknowledgement for all of the hard work I have been doing. I don’t need a to-do list of more changes I need to make. I need to honor how far I have come and don’t need anyone else giving me more to change.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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As you have probably noticed through my blog, I can be very hard on myself. I stay so focused on where I want to go and how much work is still needed to get there that I lose track of how far I have come. It’s like I have already run 25 miles of a marathon and get frustrated with myself for tiring at the thought of the mile ahead of me. I don’t think to look back and celebrate how far I have come. I am too busy being frustrated with how far I have to go.

Thankfully, sometimes I will notice changes in myself, and I marvel at how much progress I have made. This happened last week with Halloween. For most of my adult life, I struggled with the eating disorder of binge eating. Halloween was tough for me. I had these fabulous bags of chocolate candy in the house, and I would wrestle with myself. I would want to eat all of the bags of candy but knew I couldn’t. I would sneak some of the candy bars, hoping my husband wouldn’t notice. I would also sneak candy bars between visits from trick-or-treaters.

Contrast this with Halloween this year. I knew we had several bags of candy in the house but did not care. I was not remotely tempted to have any. In fact, if I had wanted some, I would have had one or two snack-sized bars with no guilt. Since I had “permission” to eat them, they lost their appeal, and I didn’t want them. I don’t recall eating any candy, either, while waiting for trick-or-treaters. If I did, it was only one or two, and it’s no big deal if I did or didn’t.

When my son was younger, I could not refrain from sneaking candy from his Halloween stash. This year, I don’t care about that, either. My son has been sweet and offered me a few bites here and there, which I appreciate. I don’t feel “tempted” to eat it, nor do I feel like I need willpower to resist it. It’s just candy. Believe me, that was not my attitude toward candy a few years ago.

So, I am making progress. In many areas, such as with the eating disorder, the progress has been so slow that it has been in baby steps. The changes inside of me have been so tiny that they have been barely perceptible until I take a look back. There wasn’t some “moment” when I magically changed over from being obsessed with Halloween candy to being indifferent to it, and yet is has happened. It’s a miracle to me, but a very slow one.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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PlantOn my blog entry entitled Grieving Loss of Dysfunctional Friendship, a reader posted the following comment:

In your blogs, and what I have heard from other survivors you often describe healing as a fight. And I have never understood this. To me, fighting is how I got through the abuse as and when it happened, to me healing is a process of stopping fighting (even retreating) which can be really hard and scary when you have fought for so long and you think the ‘enemy’ might still be close but is none the less stopping not starting the fight. I would be really interested in your thoughts on this, and wether you feel that survivng your childhood also involved some degree of a fight or not! ~ Sophie

Sophie makes a good point, so perhaps a different word than “fighting” is more appropriate. I think the word I might be looking for “adapting.” As a child, I had to adapt to being abused. I had to be the obedient child abuse victim as well as pretend to be a “normal” child in public. I had to do all of this while never giving voice to any of my emotions. This took an enormous amount of adapting, but through dissociative identity disorder (DID), I managed to adapt quite nicely. I was fully suited for living a life as an abused child.

Then, I grew up and moved away from the abuse. Safety was a completely different environment from abuse. People might expect safety being an “easier” environment, but it wasn’t because I had to adapt all over again. I spent my entire childhood adapting to trauma, and most of my adaptations were completely out of place in the new, safe environment.

I think that is where the struggle comes in. I have not had to “fight” so much as “adapt” to an environment that is very different from the environment I grew up in. While I am (obviously) grateful no longer being abused, I was ill-equipped for survival in this new environment. I did not know about basic social graces … or how to interact without someone who wasn’t trying to hurt me … or what was expected of me in this new environment. It was like being beamed to Mars and being expected to act like a Martian without having a “Martians for Dummies” books at my disposal.

My therapist is very good about pointing out that many of my struggles come from being a survivor of child abuse. I adapted very well as a survivor, but I no longer have to live that way. So, I am having to relearn everything I ever learned about interacting with the world around me. My therapist says that I have been having to “parent myself” as I learn how to adapt to life without abuse.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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My therapist (T) never ceases to amaze me in making sense out of what seems so “crazy” in my head. Short answer – I am going through a “transitional phase” of healing right now that is very positive.

When I was in my “crazy place” over the weekend, I sent my T an email where I poured out all of my “crazy” emotions. Then, I emailed him later in a much more logical manner when I had calmed down. My T said that the first email was actually the most helpful, which I took to mean showed him how “crazy” I am, but that’s not what he meant. He said it showed the most growth, and he was actually BEAMING when he said it!

My T said that, when I was in therapy before (several years ago) and working through the flashbacks, etc., I was just learning how to feel. I was not ready for what we need to work on now, which is how to manage and express my emotions without feeling overwhelmed by them or judging them. I am going to be seeing my therapist regularly again through this transitional period with a focus on learning how to handle my emotions without being swept away by them.

My “homework” until my next session is to stop explaining myself. My T says that I am a very functional person and that I make good decisions. I need to stop assuming that I am “wrong” whenever there is conflict in a relationship, and I do not have to explain to anyone else my reasons for what I do. He says that I am a good person who makes good choices, and I don’t have to let myself feel “put on the spot” or defensive in my relationships.

We also talked about relationships for a while. He said that most relationships have a beginning, middle, and end. That is the normal cycle of a relationship. Most relationships don’t last forever. They come into your life for a season, such as relationships with your schoolmates during college, and then they end as you move on to the next phase of your life. He said that I need to ask myself what purpose each relationship is serving in my life and make sure it is based on where I am today, not where I was in the past.

He also said that there needs to be room for me in my relationships. He pointed out that all of my intense emotions did not run off one of my closest friends, who also sees him for therapy. I was not “good” or “bad” by expressing my emotions. I was simply me, and my friend accepted that I was “being me” even when I wasn’t being “pleasant.” What matters is that, over the long-term, the give and take between the two parties balances out.

We covered a lot more ground, but that’s the basic gist. It was so helpful to hear a professional that I trust tell me that I am making progress and that this is an expected part of healing. I had not seen anything about this phase of healing in any of my healing books, so I was really questioning why I seemed mostly emotionally stable for six years and then so “crazy” out of nowhere. It helps to believe in his assessment of me when I am questioning myself.

Oh ~ I almost forgot … My T said that the reader who posted a comment about “compassionate awareness” is brilliant and really “gets it.” He loved that expression! :0)

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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My sister sometimes reads my blog. She popped in this week and saw my reference to a family member and a friend blindsiding me, and she contacted me fearing that she was the culprit. I assured her that both the family member and friend in question are well aware of how their actions affected me.

I filled her in on all of the details, and she had an interesting theory that I had not considered. I am writing this blog entry before my therapy session, and I plan to talk this over with my therapist. I told my sister that I feel like my “superpower” of being able to read people has stopped working, and now I keep getting blindsided and feeling unsafe. My sister’s theory is that my “superpower” has not stopped working – I have, instead, chosen to stop using it.

She thinks that I have grown healthy enough that I have stopped “being so paranoid” and scrutinizing every facial expression, etc., looking for danger. She thinks that I “missed” the signals because I have grown healthy enough to stop assuming that danger is lurking. She sees this as a very positive thing. In light of the alternatives that I have been considering (I am going insane, etc.), I definitely prefer her theory to mine!

My sister also pointed out that this blindsiding is only happening in my pre-therapy relationships – all relationships with some level of dysfunction in them. She thinks that I am “outgrowing” these relationships and that I need to make changes or move on so I can continue to heal and grow.

I am not going to think through the implications of all of this until I see my therapist. I have a feeling that some of that change is happening regardless due to the specifics of the situations involved, so I probably will be spared having to make some hard decisions.

Regardless, letting go of relationships (if that is where this leads me) is very hard for me because I am a deeply loyal friend. All of the dysfunctional relationships in my life are with people who were loyal to me when I needed them the most. My sister pointed out that she, too, values loyalty but not at her own expense. We’ll see what my therapist has to say about all of this…

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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A reader emailed me to ask how to speed up the process of healing from child abuse. The reader has grown weary of the healing process and wants to fast-track the process to get it over with. I can completely relate to this because I said the same things many times myself. My therapy used to tell me to “slow down,” and I would respond, “Why would I possibly want to endure this process any longer than I have to?”

If you want to speed the process of healing from child abuse along, you need to stop fighting yourself. You need to choose to believe every memory that surfaces, even those that seem “unbelievable,” and you need to process the emotions that come with them. You have to stop fighting the tide and, instead, release yourself into the current of your healing process. When you stop setting up your own roadblocks, the healing process develops its own rhythm, and you will move through the process faster.

The thought of not fighting the memories is terrifying to many child abuse survivors, especially those in the early stages of healing. The more you have fought them, the scarier the prospect becomes. This is because, as you actively block the memories through denial, cutting, binge eating, etc., your subconscious mind has to work even harder to push the memories out. So, from your perspective, it appears that letting go is going to cause the lid to blow off the pressure cooker and explode all over your life.

When you first let go, it might actually feel that way – It did for me. I had six weeks of feeling like I was being pulled down into an abyss, and I had no idea how I would survive this or even if I wanted to. Then, the clouds parted, and I felt the warmth of the sun inside of myself for the first time ever. It only lasted for a few hours, but it gave me the hope I needed to hang in there while the healing process ran its course.

I know how scary it is to let go and trust that the healing process knows what it is doing. However, if you truly want to “get this healing over with,” that’s the way you do it.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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