What I learned about faith and child sexual abuse

Photocredit: Denis Collette

My adult spirituality developed in first or second year university. I was taking a philosophy of religion course, up to my neck in flashbacks and attending 12 step meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics. The Courage to Heal and ‘You can heal your life’ were my lifelines.  In the 12 step meetings I went to, the word God was used, but often the phrase ‘higher power’ was substituted. My 12 step colleagues felt that any higher power was better than no higher power, and a person had a right to choose what felt right for them.

By this point in my life I had had quite enough father-rule. I decided that if I needed a higher power, I was going to invent one that I could trust completely. Instead She found me.

But this isn’t what I wanted to write about. I’ve written this before.

The part of faith that transcend all specific religions and are empowering for survivors are these.

Somebody knows all about the abuse and how dirty and ashamed you feel inside sometimes, and loves you. She/He/It/They both see you and love you. This is the magic bullet for shame – to be both seen deeply and loved.

You don’t have to connect with the same God(s) you were introduced to as a child, or if you do, to interpret and relate to Him or Her in the same way you did then. You can choose to believe in whatever and whomever feels right and safe for you. In my case, I didn’t feel good about opening up and feeling vulnerable to a male God. My God had to be a feminist. Your mileage will vary and that’s okay, in my opinion. I don’t know if there is one God with many aspects or many Gods or something altogether different, and that’s okay with me.

It is okay to be mad at God. She can take it and He gets it. Once I yelled at Her at a 12 step retreat. I can’t remember now what I yelled exactly, but it freaked everyone out and then I cried myself into exhaustion. I told Her She might have a reason for not intervening to stop me being abused, but I didn’t have to like it. This was the beginning of an honest relationship with deity that has deepened and strengthened me immeasurably over the years. Sucking up or bargaining with God(s) isn’t nearly as helpful.  There is no point pretending you aren’t mad that a powerful being didn’t intervene and stop an innocent child, you, from being abused and that the abuser got away with it if they did.

In philosophy of religion, this is called ‘the problem of evil’, a core subject that basically comes down to: if God(s) is omnipotent and good how can God(s) allow evil to happen?

The standard answers are: “It all makes sense somehow, we just don’t get it.” and “God wants people to have free will so they can choose to be good rather than have it forced upon them.” A variation on answer number two is the existence of an adversary or anti-God and the two of them fight it out. All of these answers have a lot of logical problems that philosophers of religion haggle about endlessly.

The main thing I learned from philosophy of religion is that all fundamentalists are alike and all mystics are alike, no matter their religion. A Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Wiccan mystic will have more in common with one another in their core values than they will with a fundamentalist of their own tradition.  This essentially means you get two basic types of religion – one where being devout is about obedience to holiness rules and religious authority, where the will of the Divine is interpreted through priests, and a second type where the Divine speaks directly to the person, whose own conscience is informed by that intimacy with God(s).

The first type of faith is about holding to the rules and structure even when they don’t make sense, and being rewarded with a sense of solidity, certainty and connection with community and tradition.

The second type is about ecstatic connection with the Sacred. Faith in the Divine is unnecessary if you experience the Divine directly. Faith is expressed by trusting that the connection is real and opening to it. It can make you feel whole, but it can be very vulnerable.

I personally think the mystic’s path of direct connection works best for survivors. Here is why.

Firstly, the direct and intimate relationship with a loving higher power of our personal and direct understanding is shame reducing.

Secondly most of the hierarchical religions have a vulnerability in that they are easily exploited by predators. Even if survivors escape further abuse, survivors can be re-traumatized by structures and philosophies that enable or condone abuse, and which might not be as painful for others. When people give their moral compass to someone else blindly, they will likely as not have it returned with it’s pointer bent, and this is intolerable for those of us who have been betrayed by authority figures before.

It is my opinion that only God/Goddess is big enough to hold the need, the pain and the sorrow of a survivor’s inner child. Bargaining with that fact by trying to find a lover, therapist or parent surrogate who can do it only postpones the inevitable. We need to learn to love ourselves, and God/Goddess is big enough to hold the enormity of our pain and need. There were times when I was so grieving and heartbroken, that all that would help was to give my pain to the ocean to hold. She was big enough, she could take it, and in the process of giving it to Her to hold, I learned to let the pain flow through me and out of me.

Connecting with the Divine is an ongoing relationship that evolves over time. It’s about learning what connects you to the sacred, what it feels like to turn your burdens over and ask for guidance from a power greater or deeper than yourself, and how that process works for you. It is about healing the relationship and in my case, forgiving Her for not saving me from being abused.

You don’t actually have to believe all the time. Faith is like abuse memories. Sometimes you’re sure they’re accurate, and others the doubt creeps in or you’re cut off from your source  of certainty. God(s) don’t mind if you doubt, She/He knows you and gets why and loves you anyhow.  Connecting with the Divine is like reaching your roots down into fertile soil that steadies and nourishes you, or challenges and heals you. You already know how to do it, you may just not know you do.

I think I have written better pieces about faith and survivors than this one, pieces that actually come from that connection more than I am feeling it today. I invite you to read them here:

Healthy, Safe, Loved, Connected

My good friend whose husband threatened to kill her a little over a year ago, got her divorce finalized yesterday. Butthead has been dragging it out and they’ve been spending a fortune on legal bills, but it’s done. Yay!

I met up by chance with a good friend today who, like me, was waiting somewhat impatiently for an abusive parent to die. She was one of the first people to ‘get it’ about wanting to dance on my father’s grave, and came with me on my journey through the mists to purchase my sword. Her mother died yesterday morning.

Yesterday was a good day for survivors of all kinds.

May we outlive them all, and dance on their graves!

Gifts of Kindness II: teacher sends care package of lost memories to incest survivor former student

Photocredit: Greenhem

I got the package from my grade 6 teacher today. She sent me a beautiful letter, a collage of pictures of me and my classmates in a frame, and some stories about me then. I cried a good hard cry. I’ll write more later, since I’m at work. I think this is the kindest and most beautiful thing anyone has done for me. For background, see this earlier post.

What I learned about child sexual abuse and forgiveness.

Here’s what I have learned in 25 years of healing,  about the topic of forgiveness as relates to survivors of childhood sexual assault by a family member or other sexual predator.

1) People who rape kids are outside the range of what forgiveness cultural practices were designed for. People who haven’t survived childhood sexual abuse by a sociopath, caregiver or sexual predator, aren’t even remotely qualified to advise you about forgiveness. It doesn’t  matter if they are a clergy person, a yoga practitioner or kindly old lady, they just don’t have the chops. Remembering that will save you a lot of awkward discussions, where you try hard to make them understand, while awkwardly pretending to let them convince you a little so they’ll stop. Worse, you might let them make you feel guilty for not doing something clearly unreasonable. The best strategy is to just stare at them silently with a ‘suffering fools’ expression, until the awkward silence forces them to stop. It may make them realize that they have not walked in your shoes and are in no position to judge, but even if not, the social awkwardness will force them to change the subject. This is a favor to them, as it will prevent them from saying shockingly clueless and insensitive things they may be wise enough to regret later. [Here are some photos of the correct expression to use 1, 2, ]

Remember this: the forgiveness rules that might apply to people who hit you with a car, stole your money, or cheated on you with your best friend don’t even come close to applying to child sexual abuse.

Many non-survivors are so uncomfortable with the horror of what has happened to you (even if, like most of us, you only tell them the most tiny, sanitized smidgen of it), they want to tie it up and make it go away by making you shut up and make nice under cover of forgiveness. “La la  la la… we’re not listening, just forgive and shut up will you?”

Don’t let them.

Forgiveness is not a get-out of jail free card for the abuser, (or, unfortunately, you in your need to heal), and anyone who expects you to issue that card is not your ally, no matter how well meaning they are.

2) Acceptance is key. My favourite survivor-friendly definition of forgiveness is: “to give up all hope of a different past.” This type of forgiveness is the same last stage of the grieving process, acceptance. We accept that we were abused, accept all our feelings about it, and don’t try to pretend things were different than they were, even to ourself.

This type of forgiveness actually does make things better. People who don’t accept that the abuse happened or that it affected them, or that they have legitimate feelings about it, stay trapped in unsuccessful coping patterns. These can include getting or staying involved with people who hurt us, numbing out or controlling feelings with addictions among others. Grieving is the only thing I’ve found that actually makes a tragedy resolve itself into peace. This is a much more satisfying and productive kind of forgiveness for survivors, and it works much better at setting you free.

3) Be loyal to yourself. When abusers and complicit relatives ask you to forgive them, beware. This normally means “will you just shut up about it already” or “caretake me, I’m sorry already”. Know for yourself that this is what they are really saying.

You will know a real apology when (if) you feel one. Trust yourself. You don’t have to accept any apology with strings attached (or any apology at all). These strings will normally be: “I will say I’m sorry, and you will ‘go back to normal’ and behave as if nothing happened.” There is no way to go back to ‘normal’. There never was a normal, it was only a fantasy. Accepting this deal will be a raw deal.

And lastly –

Forgive yourself for loving the abuser if you did (or do). That love says more about you and the ways children work emotionally than it does about them. Forgive yourself for being a child and being unable to stop the abuse. Forgive yourself for being a teen or young adult and being unable to stop it. Childhood conditioning is tough to break. Forgive yourself for being a little eccentric compared to non-survivors. Forgive yourself for needing what you need and feeling what you feel. Forgive yourself for taking so long to heal, not remembering details you think you should, or continuing in confusing relationships with complicit family.

You deserve it.

What I learned about anxiety – for child sexual abuse survivors

Feel whatever is there in a safe place

The first time I remember not being anxious was after a 12 step meeting. My shoulders were relaxed. This had never happened before, I was certain.  It  was after an adult children of alcoholics meeting.

I found 12 step meetings really helpful in my early recovery, because I could be real there about what was really going on, and because of the structure (no crosstalk) no-one could try and rescue me. I attended almost one meeting per day. At the time it was the only place I could be real about the intense memories and feelings I was experiencing.

I shared my first flashbacks and some very intense things in meetings in those days, so much so that afterward, people would come up to me with the ‘are you all rrriiiight…” and a pitying tone to their voice like they were pretty sure I was a complete basket case. I always took no more than my share of the time, normally about 10 minutes per person, and could get a lot done in that time. I’d always say (and feel) “yes, of course, I just got it out and had a cry, of course I’m all right.” And I was. I refused to let them pity me. I was just having a feeling, and I’d expressed it fully, and could move on to being calm.

This is the first thing I learned about anxiety and other strong feeling states, that being direct and honest about it in a safe space makes all the difference.

Ramping down the hyperarrousal

The second thing for me was the strong link for me and perhaps other survivors between anger and anxiety/fear, which is so big a part of being a survivor of childhood sexual assault that I wrote quite a bit about it in my post on night fears, so I’ll just refer you there.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder. I don’t think of it as a mental illness, but as a nervous system injury. Anyone who went through what I went through, with the lack of support that I had, would have it. The trauma is the cause. My nervous system was set on fear, legitimately, so high and for so long, that it got stuck that way, among other things. Anything that ramps down the PTSD hyperarousal is a good thing.

Physical solutions help a lot more than you’d think.

Exercise: I can often manage my anxiety best by looking after it in completely physical ways. Walking for exercise, which gets the good endorphin benefits without getting me adrenalized the way more active exercise or classes do, helps a lot.

Food: Eating whatever I feel like and whenever I am hungry (and stopping when I’m full) seems to reduce any anxiety my mind and body has about there not being enough food available, and if I’m consistent about it, it helps keep me calm.  Stress-eating can calm me down, but is more of a band-aid thing. Consistently meeting my body’s needs ramps down my anxiety.

Sleep: I play all kinds of tricks to help me sleep, but hypnosis has been the most effective. I particularly like a cd called ‘deep sleep with medical hypnosis‘ and listen to two of the tracks from it (healing sleep and deep sleep) back to back almost every night. Safe routines are good.

Medication: I know nothing about medication for anxiety. I’ve never taken any for my PTSD. However I have taken chamomile tea, skullcap, and melatonin to help me sleep.  The thing I pull out if I’m desperate is one of the old school antihistamines (not the no-drowsy kinds) which works but makes me groggy in the morning. I also almost never consume caffeine, aside from the occasional chocolate.

However, vitamins help my anxiety. I take two multivitamins, six fish oil capsules, a vitamin D3 and a low dose coated aspirin daily. Since I’ve been doing that I feel a lot better. Apparently, there is some research to show that physical and emotional pain are connected. I take the aspirin because apparently when you are over 40 it is recommended to reduce inflammation, but I think it helps my mind ramp down too, by reducing my aches and pains. Pain is a sign that something is wrong, after all.

Safe touch: Curling up with my wife, skin to skin, reduces my anxiety. Petting my dog reduces my anxiety. Hugs that last more than 10 seconds apparently release positive chemicals in the body. Getting a foot rub reduces my anxiety.

Writing it down

Writing: Other than feeling the feelings when they come up, as fully as possible, I haven’t found a lot of mind/emotional things that work, other than journalling. I’ve journalled at night, and in the morning, artists way style where you write non stop for 3 pages, and both help clear out worries and obsessive thoughts. I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night when I’ve had a nightmare and written in this blog. It helps.

What I’ve learned about happiness

I am a student of happiness right now. It started when I realized that I wasn’t actually happy. Nothing bad going on particularly, but not happy. That has changed.

Then I came across this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4Qm9cGRub0 and something in it clicked for me, about how I need to let people see me, people in my regular life ( you folks already usually get the straight deal).  She has this great quote: http://www.brenebrown.com/badge/ about being authentic. She says people are happier and experience less shame when they can be authentic. Makes sense. I know as survivors sometimes being authentic freaks people out, so it’s not easy, but I still think it’s worth doing to the extent that feels safe.

Then I got this audiobook from audible called the Happiness Project http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/the-happiness-project-book.html The author, Gretchen Rubin, an organized type-A ex-lawyer New Yorker and mom of two, researches what makes people happy and sets out trying out and evaluating various strategies. It appealed very much to my left brain way of organizing my life, but is also quite soulful.

So I’m trying some of her stuff. Being a pretty devout Pagan, I’ve used the concept of the five directions to organize the strategies into groups by element.

The first direction is Earth – which I associate with the body. I’m tracking in a chart on my computer whether I take my vitamins. I’ve read that Omega 3s are good for the brain and eyes. I follow a recommendation from ‘Dr. Oz and Deepak Chopra’ and take two multivitamins, one vitamin D3 and one low dose aspirin daily along with six fish oil capsules. I know from the past that taking vitamins helps keep me from getting depressed, particularly B’s.  I also track keeping my hands and feet warm and doing something for exercise every day. I took Gretchen’s advice and am paying attention to getting a good night’s sleep and made my bedroom very dark to help with that. I also have a resolution I’m tracking to go to bed as soon as I’m tired rather than staying up. I’m making a point of eating slowly and enjoying my food, and of eating whatever I want when I’m hungry and stopping when I start to be full. I do this about 60% of the time, perhaps a little more, which is an improvement and I’m eating healthier than I was because of it.

The results from my ‘Earth’ strategies are very positive. The warm hands and feet thing keeps me in my body more than I’d be otherwise, which thankfully isn’t bringing up any gunk, and is improving my sex life and enjoyment of food. I’m sleeping better and waking more rested, with less midnight anxiety. I’ve been walking for exercise, which doesn’t trigger me like other exercise does, and it seems to be making me calmer. I sometimes walk on a treadmill, watching tv on my laptop at the same time which keeps me interested, and sometimes I just walk to wherever I’m going. I walked to a stressful early morning meeting that usually flattens me, and I realized midway through the meeting that I wasn’t the least bit anxious, which has never happened before.

All this is to say that, as survivors we often have a crappy relationship with our body. What I’ve learned about happiness is that doing small baby-step sensible practical things to improve my relationship to my body and to take better care of it, actually improve my well being. This may seem obvious, but it was not for me. Tracking it in a chart also seems to help me do it consistently.

Other things that seem to help me be happier are:

Air (communication, boundaries): Not nagging my wife and negotiating with her not to nag me. We have created a ‘nag board’ where we write down things we might otherwise ‘remind’ each other about or nag each other to do. The nagger writes down the date, what they want the other to do, what room they want them to do it in and their initials. When the ‘nagee’ does the item, she erases it from the board. This has eliminated almost all of our mutual nagging! As survivor space cadet girl, most ‘reminders’ to do something or not do something are almost instantly forgotten, and then my wife thinks I don’t care about her when in fact I’m just spacey. Writing it down and crossing it off seems to work for me. As the nagger, I also feel like my request is recorded and I don’t have to remind my wife or remember to remind her. She is more likely to do whatever it is if we don’t get in a big power struggle about it. Now that I’m happier, we seem to have more ease in our relationship as well and things are going a lot better. It’s not perfect, but I can feel hope. An Air resolution I haven’t gotten under my feet yet is practicing singing and writing three pages daily, although I’m making progress.

I’ll write more about Fire, Water and Center when I get to them. I figure once I have the Earth and Air resolutions nailed down, I’ll move on to Fire (passion) and Water (emotion and connection) and then figure out what Centre is for me.

I’ll keep you posted.

What I learned about child sexual abuse survivors and sex and relationships

Photocredit: Morning Spiral Rose by Nexus6

Here’s a post from a place where I don’t feel like I’ve gotten a handle on all of the post-traumatic symptoms, although I have come a long way.

Stages of my sexual life as a survivor:

1) Teenage – not going ‘all the way’ and enjoying all the sexual play leading up to intercourse. Being quite prim and avoiding sexual situations

2) Young adult – having intercourse with boyfriends and experiencing pain, fear and flashbacks. Not being able to connect the dots with abuse at first, but trying to avoid sex. Bargaining with sex for safety while sleeping. Needing to make sure my partner was satiated before sleep so I could be assured that I would not be awoken with demands (with variable success).

3) Middle adult – Sex in relationships got good and a lot easier. However, in relationship it always dried up after the first year or two, not always on my end. Partners would lose interest and I would try and interest them in pleasing me the way I needed, which would be interpreted as a criticism.  Or I would lose interest and be harder to please and have a hard time getting into my body deeply enough for things to work well.  Hiding intense feelings (from myself or partner) and having sex at the same time became impossible, so if intimacy was a problem, then sex wouldn’t work either.  On the up side though, the sex I did have was a lot better and more connected and pleasurable, and almost all the time the sex I had was sex I wanted.

What I’ve learned / believe about survivors and sexual healing

  1. If you’re just having sex with someone to have them guard you while you sleep at night, get a dog. They will guard you for free.
  2. Experiencing feelings and flashbacks isn’t so bad, avoiding them is what causes all the trouble. If you allow yourself to process the gunk in therapy, sex gets easier and less like a trigger minefield.
  3. Never ever pimp out your inner child to get your adult self off sexually on things that are part of the abuse. It’s tempting if it’s the only way you know now to have an orgasm or get connected sexually, but it’s not worth it. It cuts deeper a channel between sex and trauma that should never have been there in the first place, making it harder to eradicate. Your child self was used to satisfy an adults sexual wants already, it’s a betrayal to do that to her now that you know better. You can break those abuse-sex connections if you stick with it. Find other things that feel good. Get in touch with your body. Do the work of clearing out and integrating flashbacks and feeling feelings. What fires together in the brain wires together and you owe it to your child self to set her free of abuse. Rewire with positive fantasies that make you feel safe.
  4. Clenching your vagina and vulva cuts off blood flow and can cause or worsen vulvadynia (pain and itching in the vulva). It is possible to be doing this without being conscious of it. Ice helps with the pain of an injured vulva, and heat can help keep it from coming back. I thought I had a yeast infection for years, but it turns out it was actually part of the long term effects of the wounds on my vulva from the rapes.
  5. Use completely different setting to remind yourself you’re not in the same place you were abused in and not with your abuser. Different lighting, smells, textures, positions, activities etc… really help keep you present day.
  6. Develop a routine around staying in your body and a way to get back when you dissociate. Mine is feeling the temperature of my feet, and telling myself “It’s okay, you’re safe now”.
  7. Develop a safe sex list of things that you actually can do without getting triggered, and an unsafe sex list of things you probably can never or never want to do. With a new partner, only do the safe sex things, and then maybe work into the medium risk things as trust and safety builds. Never do the unsafe sex things. If they want to make love with you, your partner needs to understand and accept that the unsafe sex things are forever off the table. You might even have body types or genders of partners that are not going to ever work for you, and that’s okay.
  8. See a therapist regularly if you are going through lots of flashbacks and stuff with your partner. They are too close to the action to help you heal that stuff, no matter how loving and compassionate they are.
  9. Tell your inner child self that sex is an adult thing. You and your partner will play together, and you can meet her needs later (or before). Make sure you do this to keep adult stuff adult. Think of your abused child self as an external child that you can put to bed with her teddy in another room while the adults play. Meet your inner child needs for play, validation, touch  and attention separately if you can. Have some times and places that your partner knows are off limits for initiating sex, where you can meet those needs for nonsexual cuddling and hugs.
  10. If your spirituality makes you feel safe, bring it into your sexuality. Make loving your partner an act of magic or prayer. It will completely change the feel and energy.

Gifts of Kindness – A Teacher Gives Survivor a Piece of Her Past

Photocredit: Miracle Moods

I ran into one of my elementary school teachers at a conference I was presenting at, and we reconnected. In a follow up email I fairly matter of factly told her I’d been abused by my father (she still works in the school system and the more people who know about him in this small town the better), in the context of saying she might already know as the police had talked to some of my teachers.

I got a very nice reply back from her at that time, and she told me a little of how I  had appeared at the time.

Just recently I got another email back from her saying she’d gone through her records and found some pictures of me when I was younger and wanted to send them to me.

I am in tears from her kindness. And not just light tears, I’m sobbing as I write this. I have so little kindness from people who know I’m a survivor that it means so much, and for her to give me something I can’t get on my own, information about my childhood, is so valuable and so very kind.

If there are anyone reading who is in a position to tell a survivor something about who they were or what they did as a child while all the abuse was going on, something normal from the life they may barely if all remember, I encourage you to do it. Their families likely do not hold those memories for them.

I am so very grateful.

What I learned about health care and sexual abuse survivors

I’d like to summarize what resources and history I’ve gathered (or created) that might be helpful to other survivors.

I went from someone who had an 8 year gap in both pap tests and dental work to someone who has had a pap test and a dental cleaning within the past year.  I also successfully asked a health clinician doing my pap test to examine me for scar tissue from the rapes (I have evidence of tearing that no-one had mentioned to me previously.)

Here are my posts about that journey

  1. Warrior Schedules PAP Test– Okay, so I think I found a safe (to me) place to get a gyne exam.
  2. The day before the pap_Yesterday I saw my therapist and we talked about the pap test appointment tomorrow. What’s different about this appointment is: 1) the medical professional will know I’m a survivor. 2) I’m planning to ask if I have scar tissue. 3) …
  3. Warrior Victorious in Pap Test – So the gyne visit went about as well as it could possibly go, and better than I could have envisioned. The nurse-practitioner I saw was very experienced and nice and drew the correct line between warm sympathy and matter of …
  4. In the wake of proof – Knowing I have scar tissue has changed my life I think. It’s like an incontrovertible validation of what I’ve been saying all along. No longer can I doubt or go into denial about the accuracy of my memory. I know …
  5. Icing my vulva – I’ve had pain and itching in my vulva for most of my life.  I’ve worn out holes in the fronts of underwear from scratching. This, I’ve found through some recent reading, is actually pretty common with vaginal injuries like mine.
  6. Hidden Disabilities and Dentists A childhood sexual abuse survivor goes to the dentist, and triumphs over fluoride treatments. Continue reading →
  7. I get an appointment with a gyne surgical specialist and finally get a diagnosis for my sore, itchy vulva, that pretty much always feels like it has a sunburn. I get a biopsy in the first appointment (painful!) and a diagnosis of chronic inflamatory condition in the follow up appointment. After treating with a strong steroid cream for several weeks, I switch to a herbal anti-inflammatory (turmeric taken both internally and as a topical ointment) which has completely controlled the symptoms.  Yay! Autoimmune and inflammatory conditions are apparently common in survivors.

Here are some great information resources I found:

Handbook on Sensitive Practice for Health Care Practitioners: Lessons from Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse (applies to doctors, nurses, massage therapists, physiotherapists, dentists etc…) This report is a good read for both survivors and practitioners and is linked below. The one thing I would add is a one page disclosure and accommodation request form, so I created it. This document was written by university professors in the departments of  social work, physical therapy, nursing and medicine of several major Canadian universities. (I love Canada a lot. ) So it’s got the ‘clout’ to be influential with your doctor or dentist.

Here are some links to some other good resources:

And last but not least here’s a resource I created:

I’m really proud of this one. Wouldn’t you like to just hand your doctor a form with checkboxes for the accommodations you need to be able to tolerate a pap test? No working up to disclosing abuse just before getting into the stirrups, no worrying your voice will break or you’ll lose your nerve. All you have to do is hand over a piece of official looking paper. Look no more, here’s my survivor-designed and field-tested version, made using some of the recommendations from the sensitive practice guide linked above: SwordDanceWarrior’s Information Sheet for Gynecological Care Providers Providing Care to Childhood Sexual Assault Survivors I’ve used it. It works beautifully. I ended up in my own clothes rather than a gown, sitting up with a mirror so I could see what she was doing, with everything explained as she went along, and with my partner present. It was way less stressful than a regular pap test. If you use it, I’d love to know how it went.

What I learned about night fears and sexual abuse survivors

In this post, I wanted to share what I’ve learned about night fears resulting from sexual assaults as a child and how to reduce them.

I started out with night fears which were more of the usual type. I had a real sociopathic perpetrator, in my house, with real access to me, and I was afraid. Straight up, regular, warranted fear. My mother was no help. This was a lot of real, justified fear and I lived in real risk of being raped at any time for at least a decade. So you might say I was conditioned to associate laying in my own bed at night with, if not being raped, at least with the persistent fear of being raped.

Over time, I developed what I called ‘monsters’, which I still don’t fully understand. They were compilations of my fear and rage that seemed to haunt me, give me a target for the fear in my body, other than the one I couldn’t admit into awareness, that it was my father who was the source of the danger and injury. When I’d be in bed, it would feel like a ‘monster’ was there just outside of my awareness (or in it) that was waiting to harm me if I dropped my guard. I had these from early childhood onward through my 20’s.

When I left home I still had the monsters of course, and it took me a couple of years to even begin to figure them out. I’d started attending an adult children of alcoholics (ACoA) meeting that was for women only, and it was there I started to have some support and validation. It was also the first place in my own memory that I’d felt safe.

One afternoon or evening, I was sitting on a couch in the common area of the student housing where I lived with a friend who was a survivor, and she was asking about the monsters, about what would happen if I let one of them come close. I trusted her, and I tried to do this. Once the monster came close enough, I suddenly knew it was my father, that it was my father who had hurt me.

This is the first learning about night fears. It helps to find out, even roughly, what real life person, location, experience or whatever they are about. From then on, when I had monsters, I could say, “this is from being abused by my father”, and I didn’t feel like I was going crazy.

I started to notice I’d get what I called ‘monstery’ when I was triggered by something, usually something I’d seen on tv, but sometimes contact with my family. The types of things that triggered me were depictions of women-hating violence like rape, or scary movies with a supernatural element (reinforcing my fear that the monsters were real). If I avoided triggers like that the monsters were under a bit more control. I could also do things as part of my going to bed procedure that would make me feel more safe, such as having a candle lit by my bed and blowing it out last, or by writing in my journal and clearing out all my worries by writing in bed, just before turning off the light. I wrote my journal as a letter to the Goddess, so it was the same as praying before bed.

A major breakthrough came a few years later, when a friend from ACoA said I could call her the next time I had a monster, no matter how late it was. I called her and with her prompting, described the monster in enough detail to try and figure out what event or fear it was associated with.  I still remember that phone call, and how helpful it was to have someone there with me when I was so afraid. Over time, I became good at letting the ‘monsters’, which were really flashbacks and the fears of flashbacks, come to my awareness during therapy sessions and then allowing them to come closer to me so I could feel what information they might hold about my life.

People have these misconceptions about survivors, they think it would be best if we just forgot all the bad stuff that happened to us. What they don’t get is that we may be able to forget the facts and details in our heads, but our body never forgets on it’s own. the memory isn’t all stored in the same place like a regular memory. It doesn’t fade until all or most of the pieces are brought together into a bundle, and that takes psychological detective work.  If I didn’t remember and assimilate all the traumatic events, I’d still be terrified every night going to sleep. When healing from chronic trauma or complicated PTSD, I believe the only way out is through.

Some other random things that helped:

1) Giving myself permission – I was terrified to get out of bed in the night to go to the bathroom. I got myself a chamber pot to use for awhile so I didn’t have to.

2) Pets – Pets are excellent company for keeping away night terrors. They don’t mind if you wake them up for company in the middle of the night and they are always alert for real-world dangers. If you feel like someone is in your room or hallway to attack you and the dog hasn’t noticed, it’s not a real-world attacker.

3) Feeling anger – once I’d cleared out the fear of being raped that was stored in the monster experiences, I became aware gradually and with some help from a therapist, that anger was actually the main trigger, or even rage. While it may seem odd for me to fantasize a monster hurting me rather than the other way around, that’s how it worked. Anger was so dissociated from my awareness – I never consciously felt anger – that my mind had somehow decided it was safer to have the monsters angry at me than me at them. The monsters were in fact my own rage. This convoluted theory was proven right when I started acting as if this was correct. When I had the ‘monster kind of scared’ going on, I’d assume I was angry. I looked in the mirror, into my own eyes and told myself “I’m angry, I’m angry” over and over. I found it was impossible to feel both angry and fearful at the same time. I tried to both feel the anger, and see myself in the mirror believing and hearing me. I tried to feel the anger in my body. This completely dissolved the monsters! It was like I’d found a magic wand to turn them off.

4) Being brave / exposure. I began getting up in the night to pee. When I felt a monster coming on, I would practice thought-stopping. “no, I’m not going there” I would tell myself firmly, and although the awareness of the monster feeling was still there, I’d go through with my plan to get up and pee and come back to bed. If I had to turn on all the lights, so be it, if I had to run back to bed afterward, fine. I would remind myself that monsters were just my unconscious letting me know I was triggered or angry. I would tell myself “I’m angry I’m angry I’m angry” instead. I’m not going to tell you this wasn’t hard, but over time the night fear conditioning I’d gotten as a child gave up. I almost never experience it any more. More recently, I would read about how exposure therapy, progressively desensitizing yourself to the fearful situations, gradually and under your own control, is an accepted treatment for anxiety. Before I actually got up though, I tried some easier things, like allowing myself to lay on my back (a trigger) when the lights were on or  allowing my foot to stick out of the covers (where apparently I was afraid a monster would grab it). If I couldn’t deal on a particular night, I kept the chamber pot as a backup.

I’m happy and proud to say that most of the time I don’t have a single fear to get up in the night to pee any more. Unless something incredibly triggering is happening in my life, I also never have monsters any more. If I can do it, you can too.

You know, I was realizing as I was putting the categories on this post, that this qualifies as perseverance. Perhaps I am perseverent after all, I just have had a harder time doing regular life perseverance while I have been caught up in persevering on the healing tasks that I needed to do.