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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Embrace the Truth to Release the Past

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WARNING: This blog is written by an adult survivor of severe childhood abuse. While specific graphic details are not offered, it is entirely possible that this material may be uncomfortable for some readers. If you have any doubt as to whether this may “trigger” you or make you feel unsafe in any way, please STOP reading and click elsewhere. If, while reading this or at any other time, you find yourself feeling unsafe or contemplating hurting yourself, please IMMEDIATELY contact a crisis line or mental health professional. Please – be safe, and be well.


Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage. - Maya Angelou

It’s a widely accepted truism that one must release the past in order to embrace the future. However, sometimes it’s just not that simple. In some cases, one must be willing to fully experience the true and full reality of some past experiences and truth for the FIRST time in order to process it, grieve, and move on. For those of us who are adult survivors, this is particularly true - and even more so for anyone dealing with repressed memories.

As a child, the experiences I survived at home were so horrific that I literally had no recall of them whatsoever, even as a child. It was simply not possible to both have conscious knowledge of these atrocities and simultaneously be the quiet, virtually perfect straight-A little girl that I absolutely had to be in order to avoid additional severe beatings. And as a young adult, trying to recall my childhood before the age of about 13 was pretty much a complete blank.

When I became a mother, I had no idea of the seismic rumbling that would begin within the deepest canyons of my being. Children are wonderful – born without preconceptions, full of the knowingness that most of us lose and fight to regain or re-learn over a lifetime. At the same time, the delightful innocence and joy that are the birthright of any child remind survivors of our own past vulnerability and the irretrievable loss of these precious commodities in our own childhood. We feel a vague sense of disquiet, and cannot determine its origins.

Like many parents who are survivors of childhood abuse, I worked very hard from before my children were born to do the very best I could (at the time) to parent from a place of compassion, gentleness, and love. I had previously been told I would never have children, due to a medical condition, and had grieved mightily, only to discover a few months later that I was pregnant with my first child. It was a joyous moment, a small miracle. But it also scared the daylights out of me, because I was so very frightened that I would utterly fail in my role as a mother.

I remember shortly after I became pregnant with my daughter, I went to the library and checked out a DOZEN books on parenting. At that point, about all I could remember clearly from my childhood was my mother’s alcoholism, as well as the physical and emotional violence of my early teen years, before I left home at age 14. It was enough to motivate me to find a better parenting model to emulate.

After reading a number of parenting books, I finally settled on my “Don’t panic” rule to get me through virtually any situation. For the first few years of my daughter’s life, I quite literally asked myself what my own mother would do in a given situation, and then after determining that answer, did the exact opposite. All in all, it resulted in remarkably sound decision-making as a parent.

In the 25 years since I became a parent, I have tried to convey a consistent message to my children – namely, that I love them unconditionally. Unlike their father, I would never presume to try and tell either of them what they “should” do with their adult lives. Instead, I believe that the most meaningful measure of success is simply happiness – and the measure of that is to be determined ONLY by they themselves.

If joy can be found living as a free spirit, writing poetry and dreaming of literary and other adventures while working shifts as a barista at an espresso bar, then I support them in doing just that. If, instead, they feel drawn to a satisfying role saving lives as a neurosurgeon or firefighter, then I applaud their choice. The important thing is that they are happy, however they define it.

Being a parent has enriched my life and provided me with innumerable opportunities to grow, explore, learn, and to see the world through new eyes. It’s also provided a top-tier excuse for me to duck and weave, dodging the aching truth of my own past. I certainly don’t mean that ANYONE other than me, especially my children, is responsible for my choices as an adult. Indeed, I am and shall always remain the one and only person who can be held accountable for the path I have chosen to walk as an adult.

As I look over the timeline of my life thus far, there is a consistent pattern – one of avoidance. As a child, this made sense on some very real and substantive levels. It was far too dangerous (and painful) to risk recognition of the true agonies rooted in my childhood. (See “Thou Shalt Not Be Aware,” by Alice Miller, et al, here.)

As an adult, I am peeling back the layers of forgetting, much like the layers of an onion. Over time, that process has yielded insight, though often in bursts of excruciating awareness and overwhelming sensory overload when repressed memories yield to the pressure and burst forth into my consciousness. There is no shortage of tears, just as with an onion. Although the events themselves happened in the past, the actual awareness has proven to be extremely raw – like burned skin exposed to the sun of the African plains.

This makes sense completely, when one considers that I have consciously experienced the memories and resulting emotional impact of these early-life experiences for the FIRST time only as an adult, decades after they actually took place. And I’ve learned from care providers, mentors, research, and my own experiences that I cannot move past these events by going around them, under them, or over them. The only way past is THROUGH these experiences. I must allow myself to process the experience, feel the pain, and allow myself to recoil in horror and then grieve for all that I’ve lost – innocence, safety, and a childhood unfettered by fear, for starters.

Additionally, these experiences, which were branded too dangerous to remember at the time, went into the emotional equivalent of a deep-freeze. Events that took place when I was chronologically seven years old, for example, are initially unlocked and experienced through the lens of where I was developmentally at the time they took place. So, when I see and feel these horrors for the first time, it is through the eyes and with the fear and vulnerability of my much younger self.

Over time, as I process these experiences, I’m able to catalogue them and see them from a wiser, more mature place, safe in the knowledge that I’ve already survived the actual events themselves. Their shadows, via memories, cannot truly harm me. Initially, remembering SEEMS worse than eternal forgetfulness of these memories, but in reality it’s the only true pathway to meaningful healing.

I’ve learned to better understand and respect the stunning amount of energy that it takes to contain memories this toxic. It’s no wonder that survivors who deal with recovered memories find themselves dealing with exhaustion, confusion, headaches, and unexplained (but very real) physical and emotional complaints. The courage it takes to face these wraiths is to be applauded, and I salute and support all those facing such a battle.

In the process of recovery, one inevitably encounters those who will glibly declare that “The past is past; get over it.” And, in defense of those who would make this kind of cold-hearted and ignorant statement, they truly do not understand. While the events themselves may have happened long ago, the newly recalled experience itself is as fresh and painful as the argument we had with our spouse this morning – probably more so.

It helps to envision the Wounded Inner Child as an actual child, young and vulnerable, facing a hellish nightmare from which they cannot seem to wake or escape. I wholeheartedly hope that if the callous individuals who simply tell survivors to “Get over it” were ever faced with a biological child who was in distress, pain and fear to this degree, they would offer at least a modicum of comfort and compassion. Adult survivors deserve no less.

This is true for the inner dialogue as well. It is all too easy to wish that the memories (and the inner child him/herself) would simply fade back into the woodwork internally. As the saying goes, “What is seen cannot be unseen.” It takes enormous strength to face this kind of truth. The metaphor I’ve used to convey the horror is the image of opening up one’s lingerie drawer (or sock drawer) to discover a nest of tarantulas. The first impulse may be to slam it shut and never open it again, but it hardly solves the real problem.

A former acquiantance of mine accused me of “holding on to the pain,” when I was dealing with newly recalled atrocities. This, coming from someone who had constructed an elaborate alternate reality in which her childhood had been idyllic, and her father had endlessly doted on her. I learned later from her closest sister that in actuality, she suffered extreme abuse by her father, and was in fact borderline schizophrenic in her refusal to acknowledge the actual real world versus her elaborately constructed fantasy. In fact, she insisted to me and other people she was an architect, a secret agent, a consultant to Bill Gates, and a member of law enforcement. Admittedly, her method was a creative coping mechanism, but I didn’t believe it was superior to mine.

I believe it takes much more courage to face the pain of what actually happened than to continue running from it. Only by facing the horror head-on can I illuminate the dark corners of my psyche. In so doing, I’ve discovered that the monster under the bed can indeed be vanquished – by love and compassion, by laughter, and a steel determination to no longer be cowed by the unknown.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Breaking the chain - it ends HERE.

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WARNING: This blog is written by an adult survivor of severe childhood abuse. While specific graphic details are not offered, it is entirely possible that this material may be uncomfortable for some readers. If you have any doubt as to whether this may “trigger” you or make you feel unsafe in any way, please STOP reading and click elsewhere. If, while reading this or at any other time, you find yourself feeling unsafe or contemplating hurting yourself, please IMMEDIATELY contact a crisis line or mental health professional. Please – be safe, and be well.


I’m a big believer in focusing on what’s good about life, and I generally have a low tolerance for people who whine. In any situation, there is always something for which be thankful – usually several things. Hidden blessings are numerous and ubiquitous; a shift in perspective is all it takes to find them.

Some people, though, take “positive attitude” to the extreme, and will tell anyone who’s survived some kind of harrowing experience or heartache that they’ve “created it for themselves.” Blame-the-victim mentalities are annoying at best, and emotionally abusive at worst. Would these idiots actually dare to tell a young child who’s just lived through horrific abuse at the hands of a caregiver that “It’s your own fault Daddy raped you?” I mean, for the love of all that is sacred, have some compassion and humanity!

Growing up, I endured horrific abuse the likes of which even most CSA survivors can only begin to imagine. The abuse was emotional, physical, and sexual – spiritual too, now that I think about it, for the intent behind the abuse was to destroy my very spirit, the spark of my Being. I am grateful to have survived these events, but suffice it to say that they made a lasting impression.

Of late, there seems to be an upswing in reported child abuse. More stories than ever are surfacing in mainstream media, and the good news is that the abusers within these stories have been discovered – although, in many heartbreaking cases, too late to help the child(ren) whose lives they egregiously destroyed. Lately, I have to avoid broadcast news entirely, because there are so many stories that trigger the horror of my own past, and I find myself unable to move forward.

I recently had an exchange of messages with an acquaintance on Twitter. This individual is a courageous advocate for children who have endured abuse, and I respect their work in this area. But the contention was made in a public Tweet that those who are abused inevitably continue the cycle, and go on to abuse children themselves. For me, that comment was horrifically painful to read, and I found myself very angry…

When I was a child, my mother – the physically abusive alcoholic despot who constantly told me how much she hated me – was the FUNCTIONAL parent. My stepfather, I’ve come to realize with time and research, was a psychopath. The term “recreational child abuse” is one I heard for the first time in the last few years, and it applies perfectly to Frank (my stepfather). For some of us, reading or watching TV can be a way to unwind after a long day. For people like Frank, their primary source of entertainment is the raw pain of other people – and the younger and more innocent the victim, the better.

Years and years of therapy over the intervening decades, as well as my own in-depth spiritual studies and search for deeper meaning, have yielded insight and perspective. I cannot change what has happened, but I can change how I live in the “now.” I offer myself as a compassionate friend to those who need one, and I laugh often in the face of adversity.

Still, the reality is that I have been permanently shaped, to some degree, by the events of my childhood. The trauma was so severe that I have had to change therapists on more than one occasion, because the professional involved simply could not handle the intensity. I ended up holding back, worrying about whether my therapist was okay, and in the process, restricting my own healing process. I have since learned how to better handle these kinds of details, but I am still very mindful about how toxic even the memories of these events can be.

When my children were younger and still at home, I did as much as I possibly could to shield them from the ripples that inevitably moved through my life (and thus theirs). I worked very hard at being loving and patient, even in the face of their special needs and my own frustration. I did a credible job of being a loving parent – or at least I hope I did. I tend to be pretty hyper-critical of my own parenting abilities. It’s as if on some level I am expecting myself to make amends for my own mistakes (a valid expectation), but also to make amends for all that was done to me by my own parental figures (NOT a valid expectation).

For a long time, I had virtually no skills whatsoever in the area of self-care. I made the subconscious decision that my own well-being was not important, and in so doing I ran myself ragged and ended up without much to offer anyone. Eventually, I crashed – HARD. Unable to work or function in any way, I had to rebuild my life, my sense of self, and my understanding of The Meaning of Life… or something along those lines.

Ultimately, this ended up being a precious gift, because while the doorway to the future I’d envisioned closed, windows to new possibilities opened, and I was able to pursue those things that truly interested me, not just those things that yield another paycheck. I was finally allowed the luxury of pursuing the spiritual journey that had called to me for so many years. I realized that not only did I not have the answers, I didn’t even have the right questions! Several years later, there I was - a multi-cultural shaman, Reiki master, ordained clergy, trained Peer Counselor, and more. But, ultimately, the more I learned, the more humility I acquired. As I've studied, learned and grown, I've realized just how more there is to do in all three areas.

And, just as the Zen master chops wood and carries water both before AND after enlightenment, I find myself dealing with day-to-day realities that sometimes are painful. Yes, I have much more insight now, so in that sense it’s easier. But I’m also more attuned and open, and so it’s possible for the grief to overwhelm me. I’ve learned that it is a far wiser choice to let the tears come, to grieve… And then to move on and take action in those areas where I can effect change – usually within myself, and with my own actions.