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Posts Tagged ‘therapy after child abuse’

Man behind desk (c) Lynda Bernhardt

On my blog entry entitled Faith Allen’s Story – Refusing Therapy, a reader posted the following question:

Do you find that somethings can just not be done alone? ~ MFF

MFF was referring to whether therapy is necessary in order to heal from some elements of child abuse. The short answer is yes – I do believe that some parts of healing from child abuse require the assistance of a qualified therapist.

As I shared in that blog entry, I was determined not to enter into therapy. However, I found myself finally recognizing that I was in over my head. I simply could not heal from the child abuse alone. I needed an expert to guide me.

A good therapist is going to encourage you to do lots of work between the sessions. My therapist never tried to make me dependent upon him. He gave me the tools I needed to heal. As I learned how to use those tools, I did not need to see him as frequently: I could use the tools he taught me to manage the flashbacks and pain on my own.

Healing from child abuse is simple – You need to love and accept yourself, including your experiences, as you are. That’s it. Of course, this “simple” goal was the most difficult thing that I have ever done (and continue doing). A therapist acts as a guide driving you to this place. He or she helps you dismantle the lies that you have believed throughout your life – lies such as that you are fundamentally unlovable, damaged beyond repair, deserve to suffer, etc. These are all lies, but we child abuse survivors believe them deeply and need an outside person – preferably a professional – to debunk the lies.

I also needed a professional to reassure me that I was not crazy because I truly had my doubts. I flip-flopped daily about whether I believed my flashbacks. My history is so “crazy” that I had a very hard time believing that it truly happened. It was easier to believe that I was “f@#$ed in the head” than to believe that all of these horrible things really happened to me. My therapist grounded me and believed in me when I was not able to believe in myself.

Another reason that a therapist is crucial is because a therapist knows the road map of healing. While we child abuse survivors intuitively know the path to healing, it does not feel “right” to us, so we tend to fight the flow of healing. We need a professional saying that it is a good thing that we are feeling terrible because we are never going to believe that for ourselves.

Also, because my therapist knew the road map, he often knew what was around the bend before I did. I would enter into his office feeling too ashamed to share the latest struggle, but he would intuitively “know” what I was facing because he knew what to expect while I did not.

Therapy is crucial for healing from child abuse. Whether you were abused “only one time” or your childhood was a complete nightmare, you need a therapist to help you heal.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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This post is part of a series in which I am providing an overview of my healing process from child abuse. The story begins here.

My first six months of therapy were intense, to say the least. To this day, my therapist (T) will marvel about how I covered a few years worth of therapy in such a short period of time. I was like a runaway freight train. I decided that if I was going to go through this painful healing process, then I was going to give it all I had and get it over with as quickly as possible.

I had weekly therapy sessions, but they were really more of a check-in and reassurance than anything else. I was doing most of the work on my own at home. I have read many stories of DID patients who need the T to facilitate communication among the alter parts and who recover memories in his presence. That was not my experience.

I recovered a new memory just about every night. When I was in that in-between state of awake and asleep, I could feel the pull to recover another memory. I would willingly follow that pull and explore what I needed to remember.

What I had read and heard about flashbacks was a bit different from what I experienced. I had heard that many veterans who saw the opening scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan had flashbacks in which they thought they were back in the war again. So, my expectation was that I would believe that I was a child being harmed again. That’s not what it was like.

Instead, I experienced what Judith Herman calls a “dual reality” in her book Trauma and Recovery. Yes, a part of myself was reliving the trauma. However, another part of myself was completely aware that I was lying safely in my bed, and I used this to my advantage. As I would experience a flashback, I would tell myself that I already survived the abuse, so I can survive the memory. Sometimes I would play a silly song in my head to calm myself down.

I learned that I could stop and rewind a memory as long as I was truthful with myself about being willing to revisit the memory the next night. Some memories were so traumatizing that I had to return to them several times before I could get through them.

While I had a flashback, the details were unbelievably vivid, as if I really was back in that time and place again. However, in the morning, they would be just like any other memory that I could retrieve at will but were no longer vivid.

Each memory unleashed intense emotions. That is what I had the hardest time dealing with. Recovering the memories was actually “fun” at times because the pieces of my life started falling into place. It was like uncovering my own mystery. I was okay with having the information – it was the emotions that kicked my tail.

After recovering my first memory, I stayed in a very bad place emotionally for six straight weeks. Then, one day the clouds parted, and I felt really good. I felt like I could breathe again, and I got a taste of what life could be like without being in pain. This reprieve only lasted for a few hours, but it gave me the hope of what my life could be like after I dealt with the pain of my past.

After six months, my healing process blessedly slowed down, and my therapist recommended that we cut back to biweekly sessions. I took a lot of pride in recognizing that I had done an enormous amount of healing work and built up the confidence that I really was going to get through this.

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This post is part of a series in which I am providing an overview of my healing process from child abuse. The story begins here.

When I decided to enter into therapy, I did not have a clue about how to find a therapist. I was also trying to think of a way to enter into therapy without my husband finding out. I did not want him to know that I was not the virgin I had always represented myself as being.

I met with my Stephen minister again, and she handed me a phone number for a therapist (T) that our pastor had recommended. I found out later that the pastor had no clue who it was for or what the situation was about. This lady simply asked if he knew a good therapist, and he passed along this name.

I was extremely nervous, but I called the number and left a message. The T called me back within a few hours, and I screened him on the phone. I asked if he had ever counseled anyone who had been sexually abused by her mother, and he surprised me by saying yes! We set up an initial meeting.

The first meeting was pretty much him telling me his credentials (degree in psychology from a prestigious university and over 20 years of experience working as a psychologist). I did not have much to tell him yet because I really did not remember much yet myself. However, I did share that I was leaving the next day to see my mother-abuser for Christmas.

He told me that I needed to cut off all personal contact with her for a few months during the early months of therapy. I looked at him like he had two heads. I had no awareness that not having my mother in my life was an option. He was very clear that, if I wanted to heal, I had to set boundaries so that I would feel safe. If she was still calling and visiting, then that was not going to happen. I was scared but agreed.

I did have that conversation with my mother. I said that I was going into therapy to deal with childhood issues and that my T recommended cutting off personal contact with all family members (which was a lie) but that we could still email each other. She was surprisingly supportive.

This still left telling hub about the therapy. Hub came with me a few days later to visit with my grandparents for Christmas. Before we left, my grandparents gave me a check for $1,000. They had never done anything like this before, so it had never crossed my mind that they would give me such a generous check. When we left, hub starting talking about what we could do with that money. This was my segue into wanting to go into therapy and why.

I cried after all of this was over. I knew that somebody was looking out for me. Entering into therapy seemed like such a huge hurdle, and yet every piece of it, including the funding, fell into my lap. As frightened as I was, I knew that somebody somewhere was looking out for me and was guiding me toward finally healing from my pain.

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This post is part of a series in which I am providing an overview of my healing process from child abuse. The story begins here.

After I had my first flashback, I decided not to seek out therapy for three reasons:

  1. I was in the process of adopting a second child and feared that being in therapy would prevent me from adopting again.
  2. I did not want hub to know that I had been sexually abused, and he was the only breadwinner in our family to pay for therapy.
  3. I did not think a therapist would believe me about a mother sexually abusing a child, so I feared I would be labeled as “crazy.”

I decided that I would just heal myself instead.

I went online and found a wonderful resource called the Survivor to Thriver manual. The manual provides 21 steps to heal from any form of child abuse. I got annoyed because alcoholics only have 12 steps to cover, so why did I have to do so many??

I was okay with the first two steps, but step three was to find a good therapist. No way. Not happening. I figured I would just skip that step.

I started going looking for my repressed memories. I wanted to remember so I could get this over with and move on with my life. So, I would do visualizations and go looking for them. I would “see” a long, dark hallway with a bunch of locked wooden doors. I would look for the one with a gold key in it and then open it. That would release a flashback.

I started having flashbacks just about every night. I questioned whether they were real because most were from the view of the ceiling. How could I possibly see the back of my own head? And yet, the details in the memories matched what I remembered about that time period in my life and were verified by pictures in photo albums, such as my mother’s hairstyle and the decorations in my bedroom.

What I did not see coming was the flood of emotion. While I was horrified by the memories, I did not expect to feel intense levels of shame and despair. Suddenly, I could not look people in the eye. I believed that I was a worthless piece of scum who was not worthy of being around another person.

I spent an afternoon with an acquaintance from church who is a really good, loving, and compassionate person. I could not handle the contrast between her goodness and “purity” with my disgusting and loathsome history. The self-loathing got so intense that I found myself on the floor of my bedroom, having a full-fledged panic attack, banging my head against the floor and thinking about the best way to end my life. The only thing holding me back was my love for my son – I could not leave him that way.

Finally, it hit me that anything was better than being in this place. Even if it meant that I could not adopt again, and even if it meant that I was diagnosed as “crazy,” anything was better than being in this retched place. So, I decided to listen to the Survivor to Thriver manual and find a therapist.

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Man behind desk (c) Lynda Bernhardt

If you have a history of child abuse, then you need a therapist. Period. Healing from child abuse is incredibly grueling, and you are at risk for self-injuring or attempting suicide if you try to heal without the guidance of a therapist.

You do not have to see a therapist forever. I saw mine weekly for the first six months. Then, we moved to every other week for a year and a half. Finally, we dropped down to monthly and then to “as needed.” I have not seen my therapist in a couple of years now, but I know that he is only a phone call away if I ever need him.

It is very important that you choose an experienced therapist with a degree in psychology or psychiatry who has experience in counseling people with a history of child abuse. It might be tempting to go the pastor route or work with a Christian counselor who does not have a degree in psychology or psychiatry due to the reduced cost, but I strongly recommend not doing this. I know too many people whose therapy actually made things worse because the counselor had no experience with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

My sister saw a Christian counselor (the preacher’s wife), who had no professional counseling education, about her guilt and shame over being sexually abused as a child. The woman had her write down her “sins” (including being sexually abused) on a piece of paper and then burn it. (Considering my sister self-injured through burning, that was a doubly unfortunately recommendation.) Of course, “burning her sins” did not heal her PTSD, so the counselor told her that she had a demon inside of her. How is this constructive in helping a child abuse survivor recover from PTSD?

I know adults who have had similar experiences with Christian counselors with no PTSD education. They post on my favorite online message board for child abuse survivors about their counselors telling them that they have demons inside of them, which causes them to despair that they can never heal from their child abuse issues. I always tell them to run away as far and as fast as they can.

I am not meaning to slam on anyone who provides therapy through a Christian environment. I found my own therapist through the Methodist Counseling Center, and he is wonderful. However, he was a psychologist first, with a real psychology degree from a real university and 20+ years of experience in counseling people with child abuse issues. That is the type of therapist you need. Not everyone who calls himself a counselor has the credentials to back it up. Be sure to check a therapist’s credentials before you begin working with him.

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Plants in tree trunk (c) Lynda BernhardtIt used to tick me off that I had to pay for therapy after child abuse. Don’t get me wrong – My therapist was completely worth the money. That wasn’t the point. The point was that I never asked for the abuse, and now I had to pay a bunch of money to heal from something that I did not choose. The unfairness of it all really got to me.

I wish I could sue my abusers and make them pay for the therapy. They are the ones who caused the issues. If they had not abused me, then I would have no need for therapy. So, why should I have to shell out thousands of dollars for therapy for something that they caused? It is completely unfair.

My mother/abuser wants to reconcile, but I have no desire to do so. I cannot see how we could possibly have a relationship until she takes responsibility for the havoc she wreaked on my life. One big step toward taking responsibility would be reimbursing me for the money I spent on therapy. That bill should be hers, not mine. Until she takes that step, I see no way that we will ever move past where we are now, which is nowhere.

I would imagine that a person could sue a child abuser in court for the cost of therapy. However, I would not want to put myself through that. I would not want to have to share my story publicly in order to get the money. I would rather just pay for the therapy myself than put myself through it. However, if somebody ever touched my kid, I would sue his butt for every dime of therapy at the same time that I pressed charges to have him rot in prison.

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Man behind desk (c) Lynda BernhardtIf you were abused as a child, then you need therapy. Even if the child abuse only happened one time, just that one time did a lot of emotional damage that is difficult to heal on your own.

I did not want to enter into therapy when I started having flashbacks. I was in the process of seeking to adopt a second child. I feared that entering therapy would end the possibility of adopting again. (I was wrong. As long as a therapist assures the social worker that your reason for seeking therapy will not affect your ability to parent a child, then being in therapy will not prevent you from adopting a child.)

I chose not to enter therapy. I thought I could handle it all myself. I couldn’t. The information from the flashbacks was bad enough, but the emotions that came with them were more than I could handle on my own. I did not know what to do with them. I feared that I was going crazy, and I had no one to tell me otherwise.

Choosing to enter into therapy was hard for me, but I did it. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I had a professional reassuring me that I was not crazy. I also had someone who understood what I was going through and who could guide me through the maze of healing. My therapist was always one step ahead of me, always encouraging me to follow where my intuition led me and cheering me on along the way.

I learned that the healing work happened between sessions. Yes, we talked about things during the sessions, but it was mostly what had happened since the last time and what might be around the corner. Therapy sessions were checkpoints. I was doing the work at home.

My therapist did not try to get me dependent upon him. I saw him weekly for the first six months. Then, as the intensity of my healing slowed, he suggested every other week, and I was fine. Two years into therapy, he suggested monthly sessions, and I was fine. That moved into every few months until I ended therapy, with the understanding that I could come back at any time. I took him up on that offer two or three times and now have not been back in a couple of years.

Many people fear therapists, but there really is nothing to fear. Just make sure you get a referral, and walk away if your therapist makes you uncomfortable. You need to feel comfortable with your therapist to make progress.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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