What I Learned about Grounding and Sexual Abuse Survivors

Photocredit: Raissa Bandou via Flickr

I thought I’d write a bit about some of the healing things I’ve learned in 22 years of clawing back the effects of being raped as a child from my life. One of the first and probably most important things I started working on was reclaiming a sense of being in my body.

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I was raised loosely Christian, but when I was exploring my spirituality as an adult, I found that I needed something a lot more overtly empowering of women, with a very very low (or preferably nonexistent) patriarchal component. (Patriarchy means ‘father rule’, and I’d had quite enough of that.)

I came first to my own beliefs, that my higher power was nature, and then discovered existing religious structures that fit. I became Wiccan, in a social justice tradition called Reclaiming, who are kind of the Quakers of NeoPaganism. The nice thing about Wiccans is that people have a lot of choice on what to believe and how to practice, which suited my need to reclaim control of my life from my parents.

Pagans and Wiccans begin most of our meditations and ceremonies with something called grounding, which is a meditative act of connecting with our own body and then, energetically with the earth and sensations around us. This is apparently easy for some people, I’m thinking for folks whose bodies have not been traumatically violated.

It was only when I tried to do it, to ground, that I discovered that I had virtually no awareness of my body. If I held my arm behind my back, I could only tell where it was by looking for it with my eyes, or by reaching out for it with my other arm. I must have been phenomenally clumsy. When I started to pay attention to my body, at first I could only experience it with a great amount of attention. I started by touching my own skin, and comparing the sensation of feeling the outside of the skin with my ‘active’ hand with attending to the sensation of being touched by my own hand from inside.

At first the sensation on the ‘outside’ was a lot stronger than the sensation on the inside. I could feel what temperature my skin was by touching it with my hand, but if I took  my hand away and tried to attend to what temperature my skin was without touching it, I couldn’t tell. I’d guess, and then check by touching with my hand.

Gradually, with practice, I became aware of sensation from the hairs on  my skin, how they would raise themselves when I was cold and if I concentrated I could feel the air disturb these hairs, giving me some clues about how my body was moving.

Grounding myself to a degree that I could be adequately prepared for ceremony in my view took several months of practice, and a lot of concentration each time. Over time it has become fairly easy. I pay attention to the temperature of my extremities and other safe parts of my body on a regular basis, pay attention to subtle sensations like currents of air over my skin, my pulse, the buzz of blood moving around within me, whether my eyes or mouth are moist.

It is still easy to fall into my default setting, which is to turn most of these sensations off. However, I find staying connected to my body is worth it. I think better, I’m more aware of my surroundings and I can take better care of my needs in the moment, like knowing when I have to pee, relax my muscles or eat. People respond better to me when I am grounded, like they feel I am more there.

At other times it all seems to much, to be typing here and notice that the palms of my hands are a lot warmer than the backs, that the fingers themselves have a mild ache, that I’ll need to change position because my neck is getting stiff. It seems like it breaks my focus on what I’m trying to do or write.

But this was supposed to be about what I’ve learned. Here are my tips for getting into your body if you are as dissociated from it as I was:

When trying to ground, pay attention first to physical sensations in relatively safe areas of your body. If you have been out of your body for a while, don’t try to do it all at once, or you may be in for a weekend of flashbacks. Be gentle. Find a safe place (in my case,  my feet) where you can be minutely aware of sensations without it triggering anything. Put your awareness there, and feel everything you can, the temperature of the skin, and then if you can, inside the skin. Feel any differences in levels of comfort or discomfort in your safe body part. In my case, right now, between my big toe and my second toe, there feels like more movement space than between the other does. Move the body part slightly and observe how that changes the sensations. Take a few deep breaths from time to time to prevent yourself from completely leaving the rest of your body while you focus on this one part.

In time work up to being closely aware of two body parts at the same time, say your hands and your feet. Gradually work into being aware of the whole body at once.

You might find once you do this that there are certain parts of your body that you have no sensation from. These are possibly areas where some trauma is held. Be very gentle in getting in touch with these places. You might want to make your first few attempts with a supportive friend present or in session with your therapist, so you have someone to help remind you that you are safe in the present, and to help you release any feelings that come up.

It helped me to have something comforting to do for that body part. I was a low-income student at the time, but I could afford to buy socks from time to time. I bought colourful, soft socks for my feet, which helped me be aware of this part of my body with affection. Over time, as I have reclaimed most of my body, things like warm baths, lotions and massages have become body care, as have healthy food. 

Lately I’ve been eating a healthy dinner from a recipe my cousin, who is a very good cook, gave me. It consists of freshly cooked brown rice, still warm, with grated carrots and beets on top, slivered almonds, and chopped baby spinach. Then there is a dressing (I’ll find and add the recipe for it to the comments) that goes over top. The dressing is, frankly, what makes it taste good. He calls it “hippy  crack”. What I like about eating it is that my body seems to like it. After I eat it I notice my body feels ‘happy’ for lack of a better word, with all the nutrients. You might want to try this, eating something healthy, like a freshly squeezed juice, and see how your body feels in response. This was something I’ve only been able to notice in the last ten years or so, so don’t worry if you don’t feel anything at all.

Lastly, if you are very dissociated from your body, it is for good reason. Your mind and body will let you know the full back-story when it is safe to, in time, but you don’t need it to start to reclaim your connection to your body. Don’t judge yourself for being numb, spacey or ungrounded. Let other people’s judgement slide off you if you can. They have no clue. With people who know my history, sometimes I’ll say – “This behaviour is a caused by some very extreme experiences and I’m doing the best I can to overcome it. You haven’t been in my shoes. Cut me some slack.”

I’d love to hear what you think about this post, or if you have any strategies or experiences around connecting with your body to share in the comments.

Car Crash – or what PTSD is like – novel

Photocredit: Kel Patolog via Flickr

[Note: Since I first wrote this, this piece has gotten a lot of attention for being a really good way to explain to people in your life what it’s like to have PTSD and Complex PTSD in particular and why there aren’t any quick fixes. I hope it’s helpful for you and your loved ones.]

I’m writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month (www.nanowrimo.org) and the following excerpt is what I wrote today on it.

The novel this year is about sociopaths, a people making sense of a past including child abuse, disconnection with nature and people trying to do the right thing in the face of it. I don’t know exactly what shape the pieces will take yet. I didn’t know last year at this stage iether really, but I suspect it will be more complicated this year. Last year was a simple time-travelling love story.

This is an installment of my novel, in progress. More pieces here.

Excerpt:

It’s like this.

Imagine you are a mother driving home from a family function with your nine year old daughter in the passenger seat. You have had one or two drinks but it was awhile ago and you decided you were okay to drive.

The night is rainy and you get into a serious car accident. You are thrown forward in your seat and injure your body where the steering wheel strikes you. Your daughter is killed. You are helpless, pinned inside the car, unable to reach her as she dies before your eyes, convulsing, screaming, blood coming from eyes and ears.

The experience is so overwhelming, emotionally that your brain can’t process it, can’t store it in the usual way. The information flows in to fast and too intensely to be properly filed in one place, all together. The sensation of the steering wheel and the pain in your abdomen gets put in one place, completely separated from the visual memory of your daughters face as she struggled and died. That memory is separate as well from the contempt in the voice of the rescue worker who asked if you had been drinking. That memory is separate from the lights of the semi high beams in your eyes which blinded you for a moment, contributing to the accident. The pain from your chest. The emotional pain of watching your daughter die. Your daughter’s last words.

Those snippets of memory, and hundreds of others from that night are stored in little boxes in your mind, with no connection to the other pieces. They don’t form a whole memory at all, and you have no ability to put them in the correct order or link them to one another. It is too painful and overwhelming when you try, so you don’t.

You receive medical attention but everyone drifts away from you after that and you move to a new place where no-one knows. You vaguely remember that your daughter died in a car accident, but don’t remember details. People think you are lucky not to remember any of it, and are relieved you have nothing to tell them. Knowing it happened at all is bad enough for them, and the uncomfortable look on their faces soon teaches you to not even go that far with them. You can’t tell anyone about what you do remember, because it feels like it was your fault. After awhile you seem to forget it happened at all.

Then one day you are riding the bus and someone pushes you hard, in your abdomen. Suddenly the memory fragment of the crushing sensation in your chest is triggered, which in turn has a connection to the box holding the emotional pain that you don’t know is from watching your daughter die. They both ‘fire’ in your mind simultaneously.

You feel the pain in your chest as if it was happening now, along with a loss so great and horrifying that you panic. There is no other information to explain what this is about. You freeze, ashamed, and people are well meaning but think you are crazy, or think you need a doctor. You think you are crazy too.

Later on, this type of thing happens again and again. Lights in your eyes trigger some part of the memory, or a particular phrase, or seeing a simulated car crash on tv, or seeing someone who looks like your daughter did, seeing a rescue worker in uniform, or being around your family members at the holidays, who carefully do not talk about what happened.

You feel anxious and fearful a lot of the time, but couldn’t say exactly why.

If you are lucky, you will be able to stand the sensation during the gift of memory that is a flashback long enough to put the pieces together a little and don’t try to numb it very often with drugs, or alcohol, food or work. You do remember that your daughter died, and you think that maybe this has something to do with it.

You find a therapist and tell her what you remember consciously, which isn’t much. Your daughter died. You were driving. The rest is a blank. One day you have a session after a particularly intense flashback. While telling her about it, in the safety of a non-judgmental relationship, you have another flashback that fits with the first and make the connection with what you already know. You realize that the lights in your eyes you’ve been having nightmares about are the headlights of the truck you saw that night. The next time you have a nightmare about them, you tell yourself this and it calms you down. The better you get at doing this, the less often you have these nightmares, and you gradually find you can look at headlights at night without feeling much panic. Eventually they are sometimes just headlights, unless you are having a particularly stirred up day.

One day, with a lot of support from your therapist, you get the courage to ask after the accident reports. You travel back to the town you lived, practicing deep breathing to keep from having panic attacks when you see familiar landmarks. The day you go to the station and get access to the report, you are terrified. Some of what is written is not exactly as you remember it, it is told from a different perspective. It reads like it happened to another person. When you read in the police station archives, that it said you’d indicated you’d had a drink at the party prior to driving, you become unable to read further and freeze. You run into the bathroom, find a stall and break into deep sobs in the police office. You hope no-one comes in and hears you, or worse, asks what is wrong.

However, the report helps because it gives you a framework to attach the snippets of sensation and memory that intrude into your consciousness or have been invited during therapy sessions. You find that they all fit at some place in the story, and you begin to have compassion for the woman who experienced this tragedy, that woman who doesn’t quite feel like yourself.

Now imagine that the situation is not a car accident, witnessed and documented by police, so you can check the validity of your memory fragments. Imagine that an incident equally horrifying or worse was perpetrated on you by a loved and trusted person while you were a child under their control. Imagine that there was no medical attention, even though you were seriously injured, and no one to help or tell. Imagine that it wasn’t a single traumatic incident’s worth of sensation fragments to piece together, but fifty, spread out over a decade or more. Imagine that as a result of the first couple of incidents, you had walked around in a self-protective haze for most of your childhood. Imagine that as a result, your brain didn’t bother to store the kind of information that provides context and meaning for these later traumas, but only the sensations of pain or horror. You are missing a large number of key pieces of several of the memories, meaning that without outside validation, you will likely never be able to explain or integrate them fully for yourself, make them whole and stop them from intruding into your life.

Imagine that your family members refuse to talk to you about what they remember of what happened, because it is too painful for them, or because they don’t want you to remember what happened, they blame you or they don’t want you to remember their part in condoning it. Imagine that they tell you that you are lying, making it all up, that you are crazy, either directly or indirectly. Or imagine that instead they say they believe you that this person hurt you, but don’t think it was a big deal and still spend christmas every year with the family member who hurt you. They expect you to do the same.

If you are lucky, you will divorce your family, get good therapy, and find some friends with similar experiences who understand and normalize what happened. If you are lucky you will have a spouse who becomes trained to hold you and calm you at night when you have nightmares, or if you have flashbacks during lovemaking, does not take it personally and learns not to touch you in ways that trigger the minefield of memory fragments. With luck and time, you connect the puzzle pieces you can, and develop what explanation you can for those you cannot connect. You learn, in the midst of the panic, to tell yourself, “this is abuse stuff” and that you are safe now, and most of the time that helps enough. If you are lucky and face it as square on, for as long as you can, then the memory fragments intrude less and less, and eventually they stop. You make peace with the mysteries you can’t solve, and protect yourself from further harm effectively.

You don’t tell most people about all this, as it upsets them and often they say stupid things that make it worse. They ask why you aren’t over it by now. They say “parents do the best they can with what they know at a time” or “forgiveness will set you free”. Their own experiences with minor wounds and misdeeds tell them that these are the truth, so they think it applies to you.

Friends you trust enough to tell how it really is are uncomfortable with the anger you have worked hard to feel and express, because turning it inside poisons you. They tell you that forgiving the sociopath who hurt you solely for his or her own enjoyment will magically make all the aftereffects disappear, forcing you to make the decision to tell them what naïve fools they are or just change the subject. Sometimes you want to ask them, “will forgiving the truck that hit you make the broken bones go away?”

If you are lucky, you will have some people in your life who never say these things, or you will soon have no friends at all. You learn not to tell most people things they can’t understand, which means that sometimes your behaviour is unexplainable.

Without being able to share the facts, it becomes impossible to explain in a compelling enough way to strangers, that unless they want to hold your hand, remind you to breathe, listen to you tell them the disjointed snippets of what you remember about being trapped and tortured in a small box, and comfort you afterward, all of which would actually healing, you simply cannot ride in an elevator today.

Some days you can do it with no more than some attention to deep relaxing breathing, and focusing on the elevator musak and the knowledge that you are safe and an adult. Doing this often enough will make things permanently better, but takes a lot of internal fortitude each time. However, you know from experience that if you do succumb to pressure and ride in the damn elevator (or whatever) when you’re not ready, you will pay by going numb for days, and spend days on high emotional alert and nights of nightmares. Because  they don’t or won’t understand why you have needs they don’t, people find you rigid and odd. They have no idea how courageous you are.