This is a huge topic. Here’s the short version for childhood sexual abuse survivors.
When you had parents who severely abused or neglected you, it messes up your ability to be close to a romantic partner. Oh yay, another thing being a survivor has messed up, you say? Well, yes, but the good news is, it’s fixable. Also, and this is a big thing, knowing about attachment theory is very useful for settling down and reparenting our own inner abused children. Happy inner children (or dissociative parts) mean a more settled, healed and calm life.
Attachment theory basics for survivors
Here are the basics. All humans need someone to be their go-to person. Ideally, a baby has a parent who is their go-to person, the one pays attention to the signs baby needs something and makes it happen. This ‘attachment figure’ who is usually a close caregiver, is supposed to be reliably there, so that the baby and then child, feels safe. Ideally baby / child can then do more independent things like crawl across the room, try something new, ride a bicycle or go to school, knowing that their attachment person has their back if they need it.
So if you’re reading this blog, this probably wasn’t the case for you. I’m sorry. It’s worth grieving about this.
What kind of Attachment Issue Do I (or my parts) have?
All of us childhood abuse survivors have attachment issues. It’s a sure thing. If the abuser was part of the family, it’s doubly sure. Knowing how that affected your attachment style can help you figure out how to heal it. Having a more secure attachment style makes it easier to have happy relationships, and can help calm down your nervous system, making a lot of things work better.
Basically the type of attachment disorder you have, depends on how much your parental figures were there for you emotionally and physically. Also, people often have qualities from more than one type at different times of their life, and in different relationships.
If you had at least one person who was solidly there for you some of the time, but then was completely awol at others, you’re probably anxiously attached. This means that if you find someone you get connected to, you are always waiting for something to mess it up, and super sensitive to signs the person might be pulling away. You might even throw a bit of a tantrum if they seem to be doing that, or chase after them more than most people are comfortable with.
This is the attachment style you probably have if your parents were so neglectful that you couldn’t rely on them at all. A kid in this situation learns to be hyper-independent and to suppress any feelings of needing help or support. In studies with babies, they learned that even if the baby appears to be fine with being left by an attachment figure, sensors on their body detect just as much distress as an anxious baby. Its not that they aren’t freaked out mommy has left the room, they’ve just learned not to show it.
As adults we often suppress the recognition that things were really that bad. This kind of survivor will not remember much or anything about their childhood, and will say that it was basically all right. We pride themselves on not needing anyone, being low maintenance, and don’t want their partners to get ‘too clingy’. They might be more concerned with looking okay, and good to others in all ways than usual.
This type of attachment is caused when the caregiver scares, moves away from or ridicules the child when the child needs comforting. The caregiver may seem ‘helpless’ in the face of the child needing help, and only eventually comfort the child if the child is persistent. Over time the child may turn into the one that takes care of the adult. They may become an adult that either takes care of others at the expense of their own needs or who is impatient and hostile about both their own needs and those of others. Since most adults in relationships want a partner who is sensitive to their needs, and who is able to ask directly for what they themselves need, this makes it hard to connect and stay connected.
So what do I do about my attachment style as an adult survivor?
I’m going to devote a whole post or posts to this because it’s also a huge topic. But in brief form, you heal attachment problems by having close relationships with people who are able to have close relationships.
Oh, right, how the heck am I supposed to do that?
While most attachment books, being for a non-survivor audience, will say you have to find a healthy person to be a partner with. However, this can be too high a hurdle for a survivor. Some good ways to start healing attachment is to have supportive relationships with a therapist, a higher power / god / goddess, and maybe eventually a best friend. You can also heal this by having a good and supportive relationship with other parts of yourself, and strengthening your inner loving parent. This last I have found particularly powerful.
Once some of the gunk is cleared from doing the above, a healthy romantic or life partnership will become more possible.
The type of close relationship you have is important, though. it needs to be reliable and supportive. The other party has to be reliable, safe and consistent, and if it’s a partnership, you have to be reliable, safe and consistent too.
I know that those kinds of relationships with other people are hard to come by for survivors. This is why you can get started on the ones that are most accessible to you – relationship with a higher power, or your own inner parent are ones you can put energy into without having to find another person. Trusting relationship with a therapist, is also a good place to start.
Now that I’m into this topic, I realize there is way more to cover. I haven’t even talked about how I’ve cleaned up my attachment style (I’m doing pretty well there). More on this in future posts.
The story I wrote about in my last post, where I’d come out to a potential lover as having an injured vagina and she’d reacted in an odd way, has been puzzling me. What was it about that which was so triggering?
In my previous post on this topic, I covered coming out to yourself, your therapist and your support or therapy community. The final two really difficult steps are coming out to friends and lovers (level one and two) and coming out to or confronting your family. The family piece might come before the friend piece, so these are not necessarily the order in which they are done, but perhaps are the order of complexity and potential for pain.
I’m trying to write a chapter on coming out as an incest or child sexual assault survivor for the book.
There are a lot of reasons to come out, and a lot of reasons not to. I’m not going to say one is always better than the other. You need to decide for yourself what you’re up for and what you need. What I believe is that the situation, persons involved, purpose and your own tolerance for social isolation all have bearing on when and to whom you should disclose you are an abuse survivor. Continue reading What I’ve learned about coming out as an incest survivor (part 1)
Tonight is Christmas Eve. I am grateful to be spending it with my spouse and my dog, in a warm, safe house full of light and love. I am happy. I’d like to share some holiday coping tips and recommendations as I’ve learned them over the past 20+ years for myself and from other survivors of incest I know. May your winter and new year be blessed and full of love, peace and gentle healing. Continue reading Holidays for Incest Survivors
My neck has been particularly seized up since I found out about the appointment with the gynecologist. Coincidence? Not likely. Since the assault that caused the tearing in my vagina also caused a neck injury, the two are definitely linked.
I believe in the saying “trust in God(s) but tie your camel”, which means to consider both the practical and the mystical in life and cover both. So I did.
I went to both the chiropractor and massage therapist. The chiropractor assessed my neck and said my alignment was fine and that the issue was muscular. She referred me to the massage therapist and wrote down what muscles to work on. They both gave me exercises to do.
I also did a very powerful cleansing and healing ritual in my bath, praying for help from my matron and patron gods, in the journey of restoring the damage to my body from the abuse. I metaphorically let the gunk fall from me, and my body be whole.
And I told/tell myself that my emotional processing system is likely to be taking up a portion of my mental and physical space, even when I’m not aware of it, between now and the appointment, and of course afterwards, until I sort out what there is to do. This is completely normal.
I’ve been a lot more open about my injury in the past several months, which gives me a larger pool of people who I don’t have to ‘come out to’ about it when things get more intense in order to have some support. The isolation of having an injury that it freaks people out to discuss just makes things more difficult, so creating some pockets of awareness is part of my support system. However, it does come with risks. There is always the risk of people negatively stereotyping me because of my injuries and experiences and treating me like ‘damaged goods’ in one way or another. I’d prefer people see my considerable strengths instead.
I found this image and explanation online and thought it was an excellent resource when applied when survivors disclose or are going through PTSD related gunk. It’s called ‘how not to say the wrong thing’. The idea is that you draw a circle around the survivor/person with cancer/bereaved person etc… and then a circle around that that contains the the person who is next closest to the trauma (spouse, for example), then a circle around that that has the people next farthest out and so on till you get out to the level of coworkers and acquaintances. The authors called this circle the ‘kvetching order’. Everyone is allowed to both complain or vent but they can only do so to people in a larger circle than them. To people in a smaller circle than their own, they can only offer comfort, not advice, emotional venting or complaint. Comfort in, kvetching out. The person at the centre can kvetch to anyone about the issue. It is apparently called the ‘silk ring theory’.
So let’s see if I can imagine applying this to myself…
I’m in the centre – I had the sexual assault that ripped my vagina and healed badly, plus the strangulation injury that makes my neck vulnerable now. I’m the one with the scary appointments and needing to advocate for myself to try and assess the damage and fix what I can. I am at the top of kvetching order and theoretically can complain to anyone and accept support from everyone. That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? In the circle around me is my wife. I don’t have any other partners, but if I did, she might be here. Around her is my close survivor friends, women and men who have experienced childhood sexual assault too, and get it but also might be triggered, and who I might share the more graphic details with because even though it might freak them out, they won’t judge me or say dumb things. Around that is maybe my Aunt and cousins, who know and are reasonably supportive, around that would be my non-survivor friends who know. Around that are nice people who care about me but don’t know the details. I would say that the perpetrator is always in the largest circle. Everyone can complain to him (survivor, her supporters, society at large), but he can’t complain to anyone.
Hmm… this is a lot different from a cancer diagnosis isn’t it? If I had cancer (Goddess forbid) my wife could put something out on Facebook about it for example, and everyone would know. Casseroles might arrive. People would still behave weirdly, and perhaps even blame me for the cancer if I was say, a smoker, but certainly it could be talked about. As a survivor, even accessing support about something heavy creates the risk of someone breaking the kvetching order and dumping their gunk/misconceptions/discrimination about child abuse survivors who disclose back on me.
One of the problems with having been in a chronic state of fear and anxiety for years and years while surviving the abuse, and then while healing from it, is that the cortisol levels in the blood get really high. High cortisol levels make it almost impossible to lose weight, and are linked to all kinds of diseases, as if we didn’t need more negative effects from the abuse.
Here’s some tips I researched to reduce cortisol levels. I’ve added my notes next to them about how they’ve worked out for me:
Avoid caffeine, which can elevate cortisol levels. [I avoid cafeine, which does make me anxous, but still eat chocolate. If I feel the need for a latte, I have steamed milk, which is just as satisfying. ]
Get a good night’s sleep. Cortisol levels are generally lower in the middle of the night while you’re asleep, and sleep deprivation has been shown to increase cortisol levels. [Hard to do if you’re already anxious. But I do modify my life to prioritize not having to wake to an alarm in the morning. ]
Exercise regularly, but avoid intense or prolonged exercise as it stimulates cortisol release. [This is interesting, intense or prolonged exercise does make me really uncomfortable – I feel hyped up, anxous and emotional. When I work out, I now stop and take a walk around the gym if I get like that, and won’t do an exercise that doesn’t permit this kind of break when I need it. It’s really made exercise possible for me. ]
Try music therapy, massage therapy, and dancing, all of which have been shown to reduce cortisol levels. [I like all these things, interestingly dancing is one of the vigorous exercise types I can tolerate well without getting anxous or adrenalized.]
Consider supplementation with vitamin C, omega 3 fatty acids, black tea, or phosphatidylserine. [I don’t know what this last thing is, but I have been taking more vitamin C and Omega 3 fatty acids. I take 6 or more salmon oil capsules a day, after reading how good it is for the brain, especially those of us with gunk.]
Laugh and cry – research has shown that both reduce cortisol levels. [This must be why crying always makes me feel better. I’ve been looking for more opportunities to laugh.]
Eat regular meals and stick to low-glycemic foods to maintain a constant blood sugar level. [Always a struggle, but I think this helps too when I can pull it off. I don’t like sugary foods anyways so it’s not as hard for me as it might be for others, and I actually like whole grain foods. ]
Since it’s been a while since I posted.
Update: Things are a lot better with my wife. We’re communicating a lot more, and she’s reading an excellent book “Pagan Polyamory” which is starting some good discussions. We had a lovely romantic weekend a couple of weeks ago, which went really well. I also read my Car Crash post out at a workshop I was at last weekend. Afterward I felt like I’d overshared, but my friend who was there pointed out that it was a similar time I thought I’d overshared that had resulted in our friendship, so I think it was okay.
There are yoga postures which increase the blood flow to your pelvis. Do a google search on fertility and yoga and you’ll come up with a bunch of them. The one I’ve been doing is to lay on my side with my legs bent from the hip and skooge my butt up close to the wall, then allow my legs to go up the wall. All the blood from the legs drains down over the next several minutes. It’s called Viparita Karani. Here’s a link to a more detailed explanation of the pose: http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/1140
Unlike my other posts, this isn’t written for survivors, but for their partners. Okay, I lied, it’s really written for survivors to give to their partners, and has both answers to frequently asked questions and some helpful tips. I’m mixing up the pronouns here, because a lot of this applies to both women and men, but some of it will apply mainly to partners of women sexual assault survivors.
I’ve strugged for 20 years to explain adequately to my partners how it is to be a child sexual assault survivor and what this means in a relationship. First off, it was because I didn’t know. I spent a long time figuring out how to identify what I was feeling and needing, and how to take care of my own self, and in the interim I gave a lot of mixed messages. Example: “I’m strong and independent but secretly want you to rescue me, but know that’s not a good idea, so when I feel needy I’m going to hide.”
If you love someone who was sexually assaulted as a child and don’t have related experience yourself, it’s going to be hard to get into their head and vice versa. Being abused makes it hard to have some of the illusions regular people have about the world, and this creates a kind of culture shock between survivors and non survivors.
Because of this, it’s really easy for even well-meaning non-survivors to have reactions and attitudes about survivors that are just not helpful. I had one boyfriend who told me, on seeing a cute picture of me as a child that “you were so cute that must be why your father loved you so much” Don’t say anything like this, he was an idiot and I dumped him. Two years of listening to me grieve and report my father to the police for rape and he says a dumb thing like that? Yikes. Some of my partners would kind of ‘go blank’ when I’d talk about anything abuse related because they didn’t want to ‘get me worked up’. Also not the best response.
My wife has had over ten years to get to know me, and she gets me as well as anyone ever has. Part of it is that she loves me and is a stellar human being, but the other part is I’ve gotten a lot more healed and better at explaining what I need and negotiating for it. I hope to share some of that with you to help you avoid some of the pain and misunderstandings my partners and I have experienced.
Here’s some common questions partners have.
1) Can’t my partner just stop focussing on what happened and get over it?
Post traumatic memories, flashbacks and all the other strange and emotional things that survivors do can’t be ‘forgotten’ or resolved with any quick fixes. Give up on that right now. Here’s something to read that hopefully will explain what it’s like to have PTSD and why that’s not possible. By trying to block your partner from getting into his or her feelings about the abuse, you’re just slowing down the process of working it through.
2) I find my partner’s emotional upheaval overwhelming and I can’t seem to fix it. How long is this going to go on?
About five years for the most intense part of healing, if she or he is in good quality therapy with a qualified therapist on a regular basis and not numbing out with substances. Then another five years or so where she or he will have bouts of intense focus on abuse healing followed by times when things are normal. After that the bouts of focus will happen from time to time, but not as often, usually triggered by a major life event like having a child, experiencing something traumatic as an adult, or the death of an abuser.
If your partner was abused by multiple people, in multiple interpersonal contexts, the healing will be slower and longer. For example, I was abused by my father, severely, but so far as I remember, by no one else. As a result, my friendships, relationships with strangers and colleagues, and general social relationships are relatively abuse-toxin free. I have a bit of an issue with older men who want to have authority over me, because that mirrors a father-daughter dynamic in some ways, but can tolerate it in contexts where it is necessary if I consent to it. If I had been abused by a relative, and a teacher and a boyfriend and a stranger, the result of that would be that there would be very few interpersonal situations that weren’t fraught with triggers. This is much harder and slower to recover from, even if the abuse in all of those contexts, overall was not as invasive, because so many types of relationships have been rendered unsafe until they are healed, and are a source of triggers.
Five to ten years sounds like a lot of time, I know, but the good news is that it is very likely that things will improve steadily and rapidly throughout this time for your partner. She or he may not ‘fix’ all the things you find most distressing first, but if she’s in effective therapy and feels safe there will be lots of movement. It’s kind of exciting, really. Your partner is most likely going to continue to grow and heal for the rest of their life. Why not do the same?
It also bears saying that your role is not to be the one who fixes your partner. Yes, you may be a safe haven she or he goes to, the person who is there to hold her when she has night fears, or spot when he has gone numb. This is invaluable, but your partner will also need both a good therapist and other survivors to talk to, even if she thinks you are the only one she can trust. You can do a lot just by being grounded yourself and present, but you’re too close to the action, so to speak, to be her only resource. This ideally will help with the overwhelm, because you can do what is manageable – be present, non-judgemental and love her/him. She or he survived horrors. Your survivor partner is a lot stronger than they look at times. If you are not sure what to say, this may also be helpful.
3) Am I ever going to have sex with my wife or husband again?
Survivors often need to take a break from sex. This is for any one of several reasons. The main one is when a survivor is having intrusive flashbacks (emotion, sight, sound or touch memory fragments) that, unfortunately can be set off by intimacy or sexual touch. They don’t have much control over this yet, and part of healing childhood sexual abuse is learning to process these memory fragments so they stop intruding. It takes awhile to learn this control, to be able to pull oneself into the present day. Some of it is practice, but mostly it’s work done in therapy to hook the memory fragments to one another so they can be put to rest.
When she or he is doing deep work on the abuse, those memory fragments can be close to the surface and harder to dismiss for a while. This means that even if your relationship started with a sex life that seemed to work, she may go through periods of time where she can no longer have sex with you or do certain kinds of sexual activities with you. If she or he has been numbing out emotionally in order to have sex with you without triggering memory fragments (as many survivors do before they start healing) and then learns to stop doing that (which is an essential part of healing) things are going to be really raw for awhile. It will take time to learn the skills to adjust to this new way of being. This could entail drawing back from sex for a bit until she or he has a handle on the intrusive memories again from the new numb-free perspective.
Other reasons for a sexual slowdown are that your partner may have a hard time feeling physical sensations, and be physically numb. It’s hard to enjoy sex or have an orgasm when you don’t feel the pleasure. Often she or he will be numb specifically in the parts of the body most often seen as sexual, because that’s where she or he was injured. These injuries may be physical ones (as in my case) or emotional ones. Having sex without pulling oneself back into the present and feeling safe (as your partner may have done before she or he started actively healing) just makes things worse.
You can expect to have a dry spell of a couple of years at some point with your partner, longer if she or he is not in therapy. I’m sorry. Think of it as if she has a broken pelvis and needs for it to heal thoroughly before getting back in the saddle.
4) What do I do if my partner has a flashback during sex?
First of all, learn to notice when this is happening and check in. Your partner might stop moving or participating, look ‘spacey’ or get quiet. It’s a really good idea to notice this as soon as possible and check in with her or him.
If you don’t get a firm ‘go ahead’ from your partner, stop what you’re doing and back off but stay available. Remind him or her where and when they are, and who they are with. For example, “Susan, it’s okay, you’re safe now. You’re here in our apartment with me. I’m right here. That bad stuff is all over now.” A general term like “that bad stuff is over” is a good idea rather than say “I’m not your grandfather” because you don’t actually know what she’s reacting to. It may have nothing to do with the abuser or abuse you know about, for example. She doesn’t need the additional triggering of being reminded of specifics, particularly if she has multiple abusers or trauma incidents. However, you can always ask what would be comforting for her (when she’s not triggered) for you to say.
If you check in with your partner early enough into a flashback, sometime your partner will be able to stop it before it gets going too far and continue, but most often this is a game over situation, sexually, but not as far as intimacy is concerned. Try and be really really graceful about it, as your partner is particularly vulnerable at these moments. Somebody put their sexual needs before hers in a really traumatic way, so you need to be nothing like the abuser. Handling this gracefully and building trustwill help prevent further flashbacks while having sex with you. If your partner can figure out what triggered the abuse memory fragment, then you two can modify what you’re doing to avoid triggering it again. She might then bring that trigger up in therapy, and by processing it there, calm it down.
Making love with a survivor who is fighting to get her sexual self back might look like taking a break in the middle for her to calm down, have a cry and reassure herself she’s safe, maybe tell you what she experienced, and then going back to making love. This can be a very intimate way to make love if you’re open to it. You may find that by being open to her vulnerability, it makes you feel safe to express your own, or that you enjoy being the one who gives her safe haven, and sees the fierce beauty of her courage.
5) How do I help my partner to keep me separate from the abuser in her or his mind?
Physical differences between you and your lovemaking environment and the situations where your partner was abused are very important. I cannot stress this enough. It makes a huge difference.
The place where you make love should smell and feel different from where she was abused. It should have radically different lighting, colours, sounds. If your partners abuser had a mustache, shave yours off. If drinking was involved in the abuse, never come to bed with alcohol on your breath. If she had to be quiet during the abuse, making a lot of noise might help keep her present. It will make your life together a lot easier. You and I and your partner know you are not her abuser, but her mind will be playing tricks on her, and the less it has to latch on to, the better.
6) How do we have the best sex possible with my survivor partner?
Make a written ‘safe sex’ list and stick to it. In this context safe means ‘no or low abuse triggers’. The survivor can make a list of things that are sure fire abuse triggers and things you can do that have no abuse gunk attached to them. These will be unique to each survivor. Group the list by level of safety. Green light items are things that never trigger flashbacks. Red light things will pretty much always trigger flashbacks. Yellow light things might be possible from time to time but the survivor should initiate them.
If there is a sexual act or practice on the red light list that you really really like, give up all hope of ever doing this thing with your survivor partner. She or he might give in and do it, but it will do serious harm to your relationship if she does, and will set you back a lot. You can make a green, yellow, red light list for yourself too. Put on it things you really like (green), things you aren’t that into but will do to please your partner or things you like less than the green things but still like (yellow), and things you pretty much never want to do (red). If some of your red light things match with your partner’s that’s great, neither of you have to do that thing again. Find all the mutual green light things you can and do them often, or things that are on your survivor partners green list and on your green or yellow list.
Be open to including in your lists activities and experiences that are sensual but not normally thought of as sexual. These will often be relatively trigger free and, especially when there is a dry spell going on, can help a lot to keep you connected physically and build body associations of pleasure and safety between you that can ground you in your lovemaking.
One last thing, respect your partners need for control. She or he might have only one way that works successfully to make love right now, and which needs to be a certain way in order to come off without flashbacks or tears. Respect that this is the reality now and go with it. I’m not going to promise anything, but chances are that if you stick to the green things and go easy on the yellow ones, some of the yellow will gradually become green and maybe even some of the red will become yellow. However, that will never happen if you rush, pressure or guilt your partner into it.
7) My partner is so spacey and forgetful. I don’t think she cares about my needs.
Okay, spacey and forgetful is a symptom of PTSD – it’s called dissociation. Your partner can no more stop being spacey at will than a person with their leg in a cast can tap dance. It will get better as they heal, but is not under conscious control. It’s not about you. Some things my spouse and I have done to handle my inevitable spaciness is to develop a system of reminders. If she needs me to do something, she sends me an email and I put it into my calendar at work where I will be nagged to do it. We have a nag board where requests can be written down, because I will forget or not hear sometimes when she talks to me. I also now put my purse and keys in one specific place all the time (takes awhile to learn to do this consistently) so I can find it.
8 ) What’s good about loving a childhood sexual assault survivor?
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Your survivor partner is a veteran and deserves the respect of one. As she or he becomes more healed, she or he will have a great capacity to hear and understand the pain and passion of others, and as she heals, an almost super-human bullshit detector. My wife values my compassion, and my willingness to do the hard things when they are necessary. Survivors make great activists, advisors and leaders. When the going gets tough, you want a healed survivor at your back.
It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.
I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.
I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.
It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
I want to know if you can
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.
I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.
I want to know
if you can be alone
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.
This post is in response to the idea that some people have about the causes of people falling in love with someone of the same sex.
Many of you will be familiar with the false ‘theory’ that is ‘false memory syndrome’ made up by child molesters to discredit child sexual assault survivors who disclose abuse as adults. I think there are parallels here to the discussion about whether child sexual assault makes a person gay. The intent is the same, to reinforce through shame the message of “shut up about it” and “don’t trust your own truth”.
I’m a left brained, logical person who has studied child sexual assault academically. The scientific method works like this:
Person with relevant education has a theory
Person figures out a way to test the theory and does that.
Person discloses the results even if they don’t support the theory.
Other people with specialized knowledge in this area look over the results and give feedback on the methods used to get the results.
Person revises theory to fit results of their own research and others’ results.
Person tests theory again.
Other researchers come in and summarize the results of everyone’s research and publish ‘consensus papers’ which analyze what most of the studies agree on and where they don’t.
At no point (except #1) is there a place for personal prejudice in this process, provided people tell the truth about their methods and results, which is why it can be trusted. If bias does creep in, step #4 is designed to correct that.
Actual qualified researchers have done actual research testing various theories about the causes of homosexuality. You can bet your boots they tested out the theories based in prejudice. They haven’t been able to prove them correct. I find this a lot more compelling than the words of one or even a thousand people with a religious or philosophical prejudice.
Here is a link to an example of a credible summary of the research from a highly reputable source, the American Psychological Association, written for a general public audience.
Here’s a quote from it:
There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal,
developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.
Here is some more evidence-based information from another reputable source:
“[N]o specific psychosocial or family dynamic cause for homosexuality has been identified, including histories of childhood sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse does not appear to be more prevalent in children who grow up to identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, than in children who identify as heterosexual.”
These two organizations are not left or right wing lobby groups. They are about as mainstream as it gets. In order to be a psychiatrist in the US, I’m almost positive you have to be a member of the American Psychiatric Association, and the same goes for psychologists and the American Psychological Association. Both organizations have members from all stripes of the political and religious spectrum, but disregard those biases in favour of the evidence.
I think the sexual abuse I experienced made me vulnerable to not listening to my own authentic self, particularly around sexuality. When I was younger and less healed than I am now, I had relationships with men. They would be attracted to me, and I would feel flattered and go along with it. I really had no idea what I wanted at the time. I was better at figuring out what I didn’t want, which was to be mistreated, so thankfully all the guys I was with were kind and respectful. I cared about all of the men I was in relationship with, and loved most of them, but did not feel the kind of rightness and passion that I later felt for most of my women partners, including my wife.
Once I was better able to listen to my own self, I followed my heart and began having relationships with women, who I had been falling in love with since early adolescence. Once I started doing that, my own feelings and heart confirmed that this was right for me. If I had not been sexually abused, I believe I would have avoided the step of dating men completely, and started dating other girls when I first started dating in high school.
So yes, being abused does make people confused and uncertain about what they really want sexually and emotionally. We get cut off from our bodies and our own truth for awhile, and have to fight hard to get all that back. Like me, I think a lot of survivors experiment with partner types who are not their heart’s choice during the time of figuring all that out. I’m guessing even non-survivors do that, such as the women who are ‘gay in college’ as part of figuring out their adult sexuality and what works best for them. There is nothing wrong with experimenting. However, our actual orientation, whether we are straight, gay or bisexual, is underneath waiting for us to connect with it and embrace it.
One of the most difficult things about suviving childhood sexual assault is coping with the fragmented and taboo nature of our memories.
This breaks down into three main issues:
Memories of trauma are different from regular memories.
Memories of childhood trauma are different from regular trauma memories.
Memories of childhood sexual assault are different from regular memories of childhood trauma.
How do you trust your memories, particularly when people go on about ‘false memories’.
Memories of trauma are different from regular memories.
Traumatic events overwhelm the normal systems in the brain that store memories. A traumatic event isn’t just a very unpleasant or very stressful event. People experience trauma when they experience or witness something that’s going to kill or seriously harm you or someone else. During a true traumatic event the person feels strong feelings of fear, helplessness or horror.
Because trauma is so overwhelming, the brain gets flooded with the information and can’t store it in the usual way. I think some information just flows over the edge of the cup and is lost, while other information comes in but isn’t properly catalogued. It’s stored in little boxes, separate from one another, some linked together and some not. The touch, taste, smell, sight and thought memories get put in completely different boxes.
Normal memories work like this:
You eat an ice cream cone and you taste the chocolate and it reminds you that you had chocolate ice cream with your friend Sally on her birthday and it was a sunny day and you were down by the ocean, and it was nice. You haven’t seen Sally in a while, maybe you’ll give her a call. Who was that guy she was dating again? You can’t remember his name. You have the taste, visual, emotional and context memories of the event with Sally all in one block, and they are being triggered by something relevant, the taste of ice cream. You may not have all the details, but the important ones are there, and they make sense in connection with one another.
A traumatic memory is like this.
You turn a corner and smell where some beer has been spilled and there is a stale beer smell. You feel panic. You don’t know why, and you don’t even necessarily know the panic is connected to the beer smell. You try and calm yourself down. Here, you’re getting the smell and emotional part of the memory linked together, but the sight, sound and context information is stored in a different box. You can’t get there from here, so the panic doesn’t make sense to you.
This can work a different way, where you have information without the body or emotional memory. You can have the information, such as: ‘I was raped in my dorm bedroom’, divorced from the information about who raped you, what they looked like and a large part of how it felt while it was happening. You also have almost no feeling in your vagina, and a crushing feeling on your chest sometimes. You know he was a short, dark-haired man, because short dark-haired men now freak you out. You can’t see his face in your mind though. You feel numb about the rape, and are dreading remembering the pain and fear, which you can intellectually imagine is in there somewhere, but which you can’t reach. You don’t put this together with your sudden panicky distaste for stale beer.
Non-survivors often don’t get why people who have experienced trauma don’t remember the events in the connected way, like Sally and the ice cream cone. Their distrust is what fuels myths like the ‘false memory syndrome’. Traumatic memory is different, but a lot of information is in there. It just takes quite a bit of sleuthing to sort out.
Memories of childhood trauma are different from regular traumatic memories
On top of all that, traumatic memories stored in childhood have some key differences. First of all, children’s brains are still developing, and this affects how we store information. There have been studies that show that children aren’t able to tell the difference between television violence and violence occurring in real life until they reach age 7. This does not mean that children are going around ‘fantasizing’ being sexually abused. How could they? Even non-survivor adults have a hard time even imagining the kind of crap that happens to kids, why would a kid? Children are normally so uninformed about sexuality, that “inappropriate interest in or knowledge of sexual acts” is a key sign that a child has been sexually abused.
Children young enough won’t have the self-talk we have that makes sense of what is going on such as labels for sensations or experiences: “chocolate”, “warm”, “that’s daddy”. They will instead only have the sensations, which means that the context for the abuse “I was in my crib and someone who was angry picked me up and hurt me.” is missing, making it hard to classify in your mind later.
Children don’t yet have a mature self-identity, so that severe, conflicting traumatic demands upon them at a young enough age can force them to develop multiple identities to cope. As far as I know, instead of splitting myself, I instead split my father into two people, one who was my father, a mean, controlling drunk but who I could love and deal with, and ‘the monster’ who was the person who came out at night and raped and terrified me. I told people about ‘the monster’ I was terrified of , but since everyone knows that monsters aren’t real, especially when children talk about them, nothing came of it. It wasn’t until I was an adult that the information that my father was the monster was safe to remember. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard, overwhelming, terrifying and confusing to remember, just that it became possible to do so.
When we don’t have separation and experience to give us context to analyse information, and if we are abused by a caregiver, we likely accept the abusers explanation for what happened. For example, I literally did not know that my father wasn’t entitled to rape me (or kill me for that matter), until I was 14 years old.
Memories of childhood sexual assault are different from regular memories of childhood trauma.
“The taboo against talking about incest is stronger than the taboo against doing it.” – Maria Sauzier, M.D.
There are taboos about talking to children about sex, even in age-appropriate ways. Children are supposed to be innocent and non-sexual, and are shut down from talking about even normal or healthy sexuality or more importantly, the things they unfortunately need to know to label and report abuse.
A friend of mine ran away from home at age 14 and then was recruited by a pimp. When the pimp (who she thought was her boyfriend) groomed her with protection and drugs and then started having intercourse with her, she didn’t know what they were doing was sex. She’d heard of sex, of course, she just didn’t connect it to what they were doing.
I didn’t know that what my father was doing was sex or rape either. When I first had consensual intercourse with a guy in university, I believed I was losing my virginity. I knew what sex was too, my mom had given me a book and I understood the basics. I knew very little more than that it was something that happened in bed and that the thing that guys pee with went into a hole in the woman’s body and could result in pregnancy. I, however, did not know exactly where my own vagina was, or that I had a clitoris until the guy I slept with identified it for me. He, luckily was European and had heard of the clitoris.
Children are not told what the real names of the parts of their body are and not given safe situations where they can talk about them. Adult women can ask about a lesion on their vulva or pain in their anus in the doctors office, for example (if they get up the nerve) but a child will not usually have a person other than their mother (if that) who they can talk to about problems with the private parts of their body. If mother is an abuser or enabler, that’s not going to be any help.
Children are not routinely told that no-one, not even your parents, should touch the private parts of your body or make you touch the private parts of another person’s body. This is not the case in Sweden, where sex education has been mandatory in schools since 1956 starting at age 7, something that has run afoul of Muslim fundamentalist immigrants wishing to ‘protect’ their daughters from the information. The desire and determination to disempower girls and to keep children in the dark about the private and sexual parts of their body is something a variety of religions and ideologies share, unfortunately.
Children aren’t told how to tell the difference between safe genital touching, like an adult putting diaper cream on a baby, or gently washing with a washcloth, from abuse. Familial abusers take advantage of this by passing off abuse as normal care-giving Children as a rule don’t know that if someone does inappropriate touch, it is important to tell a safe adult, even if (especially if) the person who did these things warns them not to. The don’t know that if they tell someone they think is a safe adult, and that person doesn’t help them, that they need to keep telling until someone does.
This means that information stored about sexual abuse will not have the context that an adult’s memory would have. If an adult woman is fondled by some creep in an elevator, she knows he’s not allowed to do it, and that it’s a crime, and she is within her rights to knee him in the balls and report him to the police. If a child is fondled in an elevator, she knows it’s icky and scary and that’s it.
Telling about sexual abuse means breaking several taboos and norms of behaviour. Children are supposed to be good and do what adults tell them to do, they are supposed to be innocent and not speak or know about sex or sexual assault.
So all this means that, if you were raped as a child, you don’t have the language to discuss it, and it is associated with shame. If you were in a traumatic car accident as a child, you could talk about it with your relatives and teachers without anyone freaking out too much, and no-one thought you were a bad girl or boy for bringing the topic up. When sexual abuse is perpetrated by a family member, the child is cut off from their natural source of that support and help. Discussing the information and getting social support soon after an event are protective against developing post traumatic stress disorder. When the trauma is sexual, it is unlikely a child will get the information, social support and opportunities to talk about it that they would get for a non-sexual trauma. You probably won’t get to talk about it for decades, until you are an adult. Since you can’t process it at the time, the mind and body file the disjointed information away, until it gets triggered later.
False Memory Syndrome has no scientific validity and was made up by an accused incest perpetrator
At this point, a discussion of the abuser and enabler propaganda tool that is ‘false memory syndrome’ comes into play. Let me be very clear, false memory syndrome is a completely bogus construction. It was literally made up by someone credibly accused of sexually abusing his daughter, and is promoted by this abuser and his wife in order to discredit his daughters allegations of abuse. Survivors know that most child predators deny having abused children; this is just a more elaborate version of the usual.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used by medical professionals to classify what is wrong with people, has no entry called ‘false memory syndrome’. No mainstream professional association of doctors, psychologists or social workers has endorsed this fiction. It is completely and utterly a made up thing by abusers and their apologists.
Its power to convince comes from non-survivor’s discomfort with the topic of child sexual abuse by family members, and desire to make it go away.
Delayed memories of abuse are the norm rather than the exception for child sexual assault. The majority of survivors have some amnesia. There is an online database of hundreds of corroborated cases called the “Recovered Memory Project” connected to Brown University where a person has remembered in adulthood a traumatic thing that happened, and then had the remembered facts externally validated.
Until I saw the scars, there was always a tiny doubting voice. That voice asked why didn’t I remember more detail and why were the memories so fragmented, with almost none of them having all the pieces in one box. I now know that’s the way it usually works, but it still made me doubt. Then I would have to remember all the corroborating information I had, the intensity of the memories, the effects on my life, and remind myself that with an effect there must be a cause. It helped, of course that my memory of the first time I was raped was the clearest and most detailed. It is the one memory I’ve been most sure of. I know other stuff happened from the fragments I have, but I am much more certain about that one time. The most compelling part of the memory for me was that I remembered how it felt to be so young and to be so emotionally open, to love and trust my daddy, and how shocked I was with the pain and his brutality. It was nothing I could make up, and I knew it immediately.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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) …
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 …
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 …
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.
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.
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.