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Archive for September, 2012

I have always loved the ocean.  Some of my earliest memories are of being at the beach with my mother.  My family was poor at the time, but we lived within biking distance of the beach and it was free and made us happy, so she would take me there regularly.  Living in a warm climate, we were able to go to the beach year round.  I loved to do all of the things that a young child does at the beach- play in the sand, drag around kelp strands, look for seashells, and paddle in the water.  And being there day after day lodged a connection to the ocean deep in my soul.

Even though we moved around, the first 18 years of my life were spent living within 10 miles of the ocean.  And I grew to love it more and more.  There are years when all of my joyful memories seem to be centered around the ocean and I realize now that my time there helped me to develop as a person.  I spent many, many days covered in sand and swimming in the ocean.  When I was 10 or 11, I learned to jump off of sea cliffs.  Now the ones that I jumped off were only about 10 feet high or so, but for a 10 year old, it was a huge feat of courage.  I was able to experience my body as being strong and capable as I grew more and more skillful at swimming in the ocean.  I learned to snorkel and I felt so at peace and happy, swimming out in the reefs with my friends, and experiencing myself as being a part of a greater wholeness with the water, the sun, the wind, the reefs, the fish, and the other ocean animals.

However, spending so much time in the ocean, from an early age, I learned to have great respect for it.  Even when it is fairly calm, I still won’t turn my back on the ocean, because I once saw an unexpectedly large wave knock my mother over and drag her across the reef, leaving her badly cut up.  I can see, though, that it was confidence building to learn how to deal with something that is potentially so dangerous.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to live near to the ocean for most of my adult life, and after 6 months or a year of not seeing it I start to crave contact with it.  Not in an active sort of a way, but more like a low level ache of something important being missing.  And then every time I am able to go back, there is a sense of homecoming and I can feel my soul being filled up.  Over the years, almost all of our vacations have involved either the mountains or the ocean.  I couldn’t say which I love more, however I have some memories of the ocean that will always bring a smile to me.  On 3 different occasions, I have had the unforgettable experience of swimming in the ocean with wild dolphins.  It was such a gift to have them voluntarily either stay close enough for me to see them in the very clear water and hear their clicks, or even to have them approach and swim around me.

To my satisfaction, we did live fairly near to the ocean for a period of 3 years, while my daughter was younger.  It was about a 40 minute drive to the beaches that we frequented, but I made it as often as I could.  I was delighted to find that my little girl had an instant and intense connection to the ocean, as well.  I had a hard time keeping her out of the water, even when it was cold enough so that her lips would turn blue. I would hold her on my lap wrapped in a towel while she shivered until she had warmed up enough so that she could jump up and dash back for another round of ocean play.  I loved to watch her while she jumped over or ran away from the waves, splashed as hard as she could, threw balls for the dogs at the beach into the surf, and started to learn to swim in the ocean.  My memories of these trips seem to sparkle like the sunlight dancing over the waves.  It gave me so much joy to be with her while she came to love the ocean as much as I do.

As much fun as it was to take my daughter to play at the beach, I believe that I actually valued my time alone with the ocean most of all.  I was fortunate enough to work in a location that allowed me to walk to the ocean and spend time with it during my lunch break.  The location wasn’t completely isolated, but that part of the beach was fairly difficult to access, because you could only reach it via a steep path down the cliffs, which left the beach largely empty.  When I was hurting or otherwise stressed, I would walk down and sit on the beach.  It felt like I could open myself to the ocean which was large enough so to absorb all of the pain that I had in my soul.  I imagined the emotional poison all draining out of me, running down the beach, and disappearing into the ocean.  In its place, I then would fill my soul with peace and strength.  While I wasn’t thinking of it that way at the time, it was the place that I would go to in order to become grounded again.  Sometimes I wept and I would come away feeling lighter.  Sometimes the tears could not come, but at least I would feel calmer and more confident that, somehow, things would work out.

So now, one of the methods that I use to remind myself that I am in this time is to think of one of my happiest times at the ocean as an adult.  My daughter, my husband, and my dog are all in the memory, reminding me of my connection with the people I love most and an animal who also had a special place in my heart.  And when I remember to, it allows me to reach out for a source of strength, peace, and well being.

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I “know” that my body belongs to me. I really do. I just wish that all of me knew the same thing. When someone treats your body like it belongs to them, it does not matter what age you are at, it creates a great deal of confusion. And when someone treats your body in such a way when you are a child, at a time when you are forming your views about your place in the world, how can you help but come to believe that your body is not fully your own at a very deep level?

Because we are taught lies not only by what is said to us, but also by how we are treated. And this is a terrible lie.

In Elizabeth Cunningham’s book, Daughter of the Shining Isles, the main character, Maeve, talks about self sovereignty. When she is raped as a teenager, she learns that she cannot have full control over her body, under all circumstances, and that terrible things can happen to women. But she also comes to understand that despite needing to deal with the realities of the world, her body actually belongs to no one other than her. She has the right to say what will and will not happen with her body, even if there are times when she cannot enforce that right with others. Somehow, she comes to understand that being violated and having control over her body taken away from her does not actually make her belong to those who do the violating. She still belongs to herself.

This sort of nuanced thinking is well beyond a child’s capability. In fact, I suspect that it is something that most adults would have a very hard time finding their way to. But there is something very important there that I am trying to find a way to incorporate into my own self understanding.

If we can find a way to hold on to ourselves, no matter what happens to us, no matter how we are treated, our essence still belongs to ourselves. Just because someone acts like we belong to them, that does not actually mean that we really do belong to them. We can see the lie for what it is and not allow it to rule us.

Unfortunately, when the lie is taught to us as we are forming our self concept, extinguishing that lie is not a simple matter, and it can take a very long time to unlearn, but it is certainly doable. As I was starting to relearn that my body belongs to me, I spent a lot of time looking at parts of me and noting to myself, “This is my arm. It is the arm of an adult, not a child. I get to say who touches this arm and who this arm touches. I get to say what type of touch is OK with me. And I can change my mind at any time that I need or want to. No one else has the right to make those decisions.”

So, now the “greater me” understands that my body belongs to no one else and that it is my right and responsibility to keep myself safe from harm. But I still catch younger parts of me being very confused about the concept. There is still an underlying belief that I am meant to be used and that I have no right to protect myself. Fortunately, I am in a safe relationship and have been for many years and my husband has no intention or desire to “use” me. This has helped to keep me safe. My heart cries for those who have the same beliefs and who are not in safe relationships, because they are so vulnerable to being harmed again.

I am not entirely sure how to convince the youngest parts of me that it is safe for me to believe that no one else has the right to determine what is done to my body. My guess is that it will not be done directly. I think that it will instead be accomplished through helping those parts feel safe enough to experience the natural and healthy reactions to being abused. I need to help them learn that it is safe to be angry about what was done and that what was done was indeed very wrong. He had no right to harm me and I had every right to expect to be protected from harm. The fact that I was allowed to be hurt so badly is wrong at a very fundamental level. And finally, while I perceived that my survival at the time was dependent upon my submitting to him, I now exist in a time and place where that is no longer the case.

My hope is that eventually, the parts of me that are stuck in the memories will become less and less stuck, so that they can see that my current reality is so very different from my then reality. I wasn’t able to resist his using my body when I was young, but I have carried that body forward in time and grown it, and now it is the body of a strong and capable woman. This body that I have now is no longer the helpless body of a child.

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I am not alone

One of the things that is hardest for me about the abuse is how alone I felt with it all.  I had to go through it alone when it happened.  I had to deal with it alone afterwards.  I had to find someway to get through life, on my own.  Even if the abuse had still happened, but I if had received adequate support and protection afterwards, I most likely wouldn’t be here writing about this now.  The type of support that a child receives to help her deal with the aftermath of abuse is a huge predictor of the long range impact of the abuse.  PTSD becomes much rarer in situations where the child had a loving adult help them deal with the impact of the abuse in a caring and sensitive manner.  Dissociative disorders become all but unheard of, with that kind of support.  Children are incredibly resilient, if you only give them what they need in order to heal.

But, when you are left alone to deal with the trauma and all of the messages that you have been taught about yourself via the abuse and lack of protection, you are left with a gnawing, bone deep certainty that you will always be alone, even if there are other people around you.

I have had to work hard over the years to even begin to take in that I am not alone and to trust the people around me to not abandon me when I most need them.  My poor husband was so frustrated by this, because he knew that he was trustworthy, but I just couldn’t fully believe it, even though I knew it.  In fact, he is one of the most trustworthy people whom I have ever met, which was one of the reasons that I fell in love with him in the first place.

Slowly, I have learned to rely on a small handful of people, to actually be there for me, especially in every day circumstances.  I no longer fear that my husband will abandon me. I am happy to say that even I can look at the fact that he has stuck with me through thick and thin for 23 years, and come to the conclusion that he just isn’t going to leave me.

It takes a lot longer for me to take the chance to rely on friends than it does the average person.  I have an extremely difficult time asking for something, especially the first few times, and I find it very threatening to start to perceive myself as needing something from a friend, especially emotional support.  But we are social creatures.  We are designed to need each other, not to live in isolation.  The vast majority of us need others in our lives with whom we can give and receive support and love, in order to really be able to flourish.  While I find it difficult to trust others enough to make those deep connections, I also crave those very connections from the bottom of my heart. 

Today, even though I am not where I want to be, I am astonished to realize that I have more support from friends than I have ever had before.  I made decision that if I really wanted to have meaningful friendships, then I was going to have to take the risk and show the real me.  If I kept the wall up that kept almost everyone from seeing how I really felt and what my experience was really like, then I would continue to have many people that I was friendly with, but no real friends.  Taking that risk to show your real self as you are getting to know someone can feel very scary, even if you take it slowly and test out each and every step to see if that person still feels safe and reliable.

But the payback when people come through for you and show you that they still care for you and want to be there for you, warts and all, is beyond words.  For me, it feels like my entire world is being shifted just a bit, into a kinder world where there are people who will accept and value all of me.  As this started to happen, I was frightened that I might have made a mistake, but over time, I am learning that it is safe to rely on other people to be there for you.  No single person can be there all of the time, we all have crises, illnesses, distracting events, and just plain exhaustion that keep us from being able to be there for someone that we really do want to support.  But I am slowly relaxing into the fact that as I let more people into my heart and trust them to take me into theirs, I am building a support system where I am bound to almost always have someone available for me whenever I need it.  I just have to remember to reach out when I am in need of support.

Predictably, when I am working from a place of dealing with the abuse, it all becomes even harder, because parts of me are still entrenched in the memory of being utterly alone when I most needed for someone to be there for me.  It becomes very hard to believe that others really will be reliable and that I won’t be rejected simply because I am in need of support and comfort.  In fact, it is so foreign to my way of thinking as a child that I now have trouble even remembering that I can reach out for help when I am most in need of that help.

But somehow, over the last several weeks, I have noticed that starting to shift.  I find myself willing to take more risks, even when I am working from a hurt child part.  First, it started with Mama Bear and simply being willing to acknowledge just how very much I need the connection that I have developed with her.  Then with my husband, I took the chance of admitting to him some of the things that I am remembering that shame me the most, allowing myself to cry on him, and actually letting go of some of that shame.  Then with a group of trusted friends, I have become ever more honest about how the abuse has affected me. 

I see now that it isn’t just that I have trouble relying on people to be there for me because I am afraid that they will let me down.  In fact, the more potent factor right now is that there are parts of me inside that are completely convinced that the reason I didn’t get the support that I needed as a child was because there was something intrinsically bad about me that would disgust people and drive them off.  The more that I showed them who I was and allowed them to get close to me, the more likely it was that other people would see just how damaged I was inside or experience being overwhelmed by how much I need the support others.  It was a given to me that people would vanish from my life as a result.

Unfortunately, the way to undo that sort of faulty thinking is to take a risk and experience that what I fear the most will not actually happen.  I needed to take the chance that I could really lean hard on people and not have them step away from me, leaving me to fall off what felt like a cliff.  Fortunately, my greater self could look at both sides and both see how deep the fear was and what caused it and yet also see that I have people in my life who have over and over again shown every sign of thoroughly reliable.

And so I am learning to open my heart, ask for, and take in the support and care that has been there, waiting for me to ask for it.  With Mama Bear, that means feeling safe enough to actually call and ask for help, when I really need it, despite how scary taking that action feels.  It also means allowing myself to fully take in and believe that there is nothing that I might bring up in session that will make her reject me or judge me.  No memory is too horrible and no emotion is too intense, it is safe for all of me to be there, and she will not leave me alone when I most need her.

To my astonishment, while I was at a friend’s house recently, I found myself reaching out for support, because I was in so much pain and I was desperate to not feel alone with it.  As she put an arm around me, I responded to my needs and the kindness that was being shown to me, rather than to my fear of rejection.  I leaned into her shoulder and just cried and let myself accept someone supporting me from her heart.  I am so grateful to her for just being herself and supporting me in being me.

I really am starting to believe it all the way…  And I thank God, that I really am no longer alone.

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Living is scary and risky, but the thought of reaching the end of my life and realizing that I let my fears keep me from really living, is even more scary.

GYA today

RISK

To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental,
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self,
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss,
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.

But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow,
But he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live.
Chained by his servitude he is a slave who has forfeited all freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.

   —William Arthur Ward

Are you free?

 

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A couple of things have come together in the last couple of days that have made me decide to try something new.  First, I have had comments from multiple people that there is so much pain in what I have written.  And there is, but really that isn’t all that there is in my life, it is just that the topics that I feel compelled to write about right now have a lot of pain associated.  Second, I have seen a bit of a buzz about the idea of including what you are grateful for in some form on your blog posts, which I think is a great idea.  Of course, I don’t want to just do a list, but I have to do it in a much more wordy manner! 

While I was on that walk in the woods earlier this week, I went into an area that I don’t normally go into.  To get into this area, I descended down a cliff to a part of the forest that is obviously much more mature than the more easily logged sections.  I reveled in the feel of a mature forest, the sounds of the birds, the motion of the squirrels as they teased my dog, the crunching sound of the leaves under my feet, the hint of a breeze on my skin, the earthy smells from the vegetation and soil, and the heart lifting sound of the river dancing over rocks.  And then, as I rounded a corner, I came across a scene of sunlight filtering through old pine trees, and a memory came back to me that was incredibly vivid.

This was a memory that I welcomed!  It was of a backpacking trip that my husband and I took many years ago in the Olympic Mountains of Washington State.  Entering the valley that we were going to work our way up, we walked for over a mile through old growth forest with these massive pines that towered over us, while listening to a river running near by the whole way.  It was a magical scene!  There is something about being in a forest that has never been logged that feels like it connects you to all that is good.  Many of my most spiritual moments have taken place when I am in the midst of the overwhelmingly beautiful natural world.  As I was walking through these trees, I was reminded of an earlier trip to see a friend in the Netherlands, and he had taken me to the cathedral in his city which was over a thousand years old.  Both places had the same sense of holiness, a feeling that you should keep your voice hushed and be reverent, because there was something so much greater than you present in that place.

Walking between those trees, I was awed by how immense they were.  I imagined what it would have been like to hear one of those living towers come crashing down in a storm, and marveled at the many, many growth rings that were exposed when a passage was cut through one of the trees.  I felt so small, but somehow it didn’t make me feel insignificant, just aware of how I am only a tiny part of this world, but still valuable in my own right.  Even now, sitting here, writing, it makes my heart fill with joy to bring back the details of this glorious passage through a magical world.

And this was only the first mile or two of this trip!  It was my first backpacking trip and my first time into the high mountains since I was a small child.  I wasn’t fully prepared for how backpacking is a mixture of the sublime and the agonizing (carrying a 40 pound pack up a 3,000 foot elevation gain over only 4 miles cannot help but be agonizing when you aren’t used to it!)  But what a lesson in how getting through something painful can have the most amazing awards!

After we finally made it to our camping site, exhausted, ravenous, and sweaty, we had the wonderful treat of finally taking those packs off.  When that burden is dropped, you feel so delightfully light!  We sat there, looking around at the mountains that surrounded us, listening to the quiet, and proud of the fact that there was no way to this little slice of heaven other than by getting there the hard way.  The sky was an amazing blue.  Even though we had to deal with voracious mosquitoes and hard beds, there is nothing like waking up in the early morning and opening up your tent to the light and air of the high mountains.  And I have to say that I was astonished to discover just how good instant oatmeal can taste when eaten in the right circumstances! 

Later that day, we left our camp and hiked further up, towards the small glacier at the top of the valley.  We passed the most astonishingly colored alpine lake, which was probably the most beautiful bright turquoise blue that I have ever seen, and made our way up as far as we could.  The day had turned hot, as we sat to eat our lunch and surveyed the amazing world around us, so we gave into the temptation to drink from the clear, fresh, and very cold water, as it was melting off the glacier.  Yes, it was a fool hardy thing to do, and I have since learned to always carry a water filter so I can safely drink that amazing water, but that water tasted better than anything I had drunk before!   

I am grateful beyond words for being reminded of a wonderful few days spent with an amazing man, in an extraordinary place.  I will always treasure that time.  Looking back, that trip was an important gift, because it was made the same summer that I started to work with Mama Bear, just as everything was starting to emerge.  Experiencing something that filled my soul and connected me with my strength had to have helped to sustain me through the next several months, which were very difficult indeed.  Yes, there can indeed be periods of amazing light and beauty, even during very dark times.

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