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Archive for April, 2013

“You can call me or text me if you need to. You can try to e-mail me, but that will take longer for me to see. You know how to reach me.”

Mama Bear is going out of town for a long weekend and normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but the last few weeks have been increasingly rough for me. The problem here isn’t her being out of town- she makes this trip regularly and she will be back before our next appointment. It’s that it’s already terribly difficult to for me contact her and ask her for support, even when she isn’t off doing something special with her family. Under normal conditions, I almost always e-mail her, because that seems less intrusive to me. I know that if she is busy with something, she isn’t going to be reading e-mails, so my e-mail is unlikely to interrupt something important. But sending a text or calling her is asking for a response in real time. I know that she won’t respond or answer if she is busy, but I still will have interfered with her other business. And acting as though my distress is a worthy enough reason to interrupt her day is frightening for me.

Will you contact me if you need to speak to me?” I struggle to answer that question. The logical part of me wants to say that I don’t intend to need to, but if things get to be that bad, yes I will. But all of the kid parts are clamoring, “No! I can’t!! I can’t! I want to but I can’t!” Finally I manage to force out, “I will try to.”

“You will try to?” Mama Bear sounds a bit disappointed.

“Yes, I will try to.”

“C., it really is OK for you to contact me. I know how to take care of myself. I appreciate that you want to respect my time with my son, but if you need to, call me.”

“But I don’t know how to tell how much distress is enough to warrant calling, unless I am at the point where I am about to go off the cliff.”

“Please don’t wait until that point. Call before that, it will be easier on both me and you if you do. It would be a problem if you were going to call me all day, every day, but you aren’t going to do that. We are talking about 5 or 10 minutes now and then and that is something that it is OK with me to give. It really is OK for you to ask for my help. I mean it.”

While she is talking, I listen intently and try to get all of me to listen. She finishes and for several seconds I just stare into her eyes, trying to show the parts of me inside that are afraid to believe what she is saying, that her eyes show that she is completely sincere.

“I’m not getting through at all, am I?”

“No, actually you are and I am trying to help more of me absorb what you are saying.”

This has been a long term problem for me. I am so afraid to ask for too much and end up rejected as being “too needy.” The thing is that I know that this is a mother issue and it isn’t really a Mama Bear issue; we have worked on it in the past and I am sure that we will continue to work on it for some time to come. It is a core issue for me, “Is it safe to need others? Can I trust them to be there for me when I need them? Will they decide that I am too demanding and desert me?”

Over time, I have made significant progress on present day relationships. Yes, these fears can be triggered in my relationships with my husband and friends, but I no longer automatically react from these fears every time. And as I slowly learn that while the people I care about are human and will let me down sometimes, I am able to make smart choices on who I trust and I’m not going to have any grand betrayals. I can trust myself to find good people to trust to be there for me.

But what gets stirred up in the therapeutic relationship is different. Much of the time, I’m not primarily reacting from the here and now me- that would be so simple- I’m reacting from so many young me’s who were formed at a time when I did experience just the sort of abandonment in the face of intense need that I am fearing. And as challenging as it is for me to struggle with it over and over, it’s something that I need to do, because those hurt, betrayed child parts need to learn that even though my mother let me down so profoundly, that does not mean that I can never reach out for help when I am in pain. There are people here, now, who I can trust to not abandon me to that pain, even if the intensity of the pain is frightening to me.

But asking for what I need is so hard, even when it should be a simple request. There have been so many times when Mama Bear has responded to my e-mail and I know that what I really need is to hear her say those same words, because the child parts don’t take in what is written in the e-mails. Sometimes I can imagine her saying what she wrote and hear her voice in my head, which helps. Over all, though, reading helps my adult, but isn’t so helpful for the child parts. And yet, it is these child parts who are most opposed to my picking up my phone, calling, and saying, “Hey, could you please take a couple of minutes to just say to me what you wrote, because my kids really need to take this in.”

For right now, I will hold in mind that Mama Bear really did mean what she said today. She knows that I am in a bit of a fragile place and that there is a real chance that something could set me off. It’s better for me to reach out for a steadying hand before I go spinning out of control, rather than grit my teeth and end up a royal mess that she gets to help scrape off the walls when she gets home. I won’t call, but I will text and ask to talk to her, if I find myself heading towards spinning out of control.

And I think that I may show her the paragraph about how helpful it would be to have her say things sometimes, rather than just write them. It would be good practice for me to ask for something that isn’t absolutely necessary but would probably be helpful. Because I need to help all of me understand that what I experienced as a child doesn’t actually define the limits of the entire world. Little by little I can test this out and take it in…

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Some weeks I just have to say to myself over and over, “I am strong enough to do this. I am strong enough to do this.” This has been one of those weeks. Or couple of weeks.

It hasn’t been all bad. I actually seem to have taken a big step forward on figuring out self soothing and support. But part of taking that step forward was to realize in a different way that I simply can’t abandon myself to the pain or fear. I have to sit with myself feeling the pain, while also doing whatever is soothing. I can’t keep on rejecting and pushing away from me the feeling parts. As a result, I believe that all of me probably is doing better, but I feel so much pain. However, I know that if I am making it through this period without thinking that it is too much for me survive or that I wish that I was dead, then I have to be moving forward.

A part of what has changed for me is that I decided to stop fighting with the rest of me. It hurts me too much to keep on saying, “I don’t believe what I am being shown/told because it is too threatening for me to believe.” When I do that, it’s like I’m telling those parts of me that they are liars or they are stupid and can’t accurately relate anything. To some extent I am saying, “Go away and shut up,” when those hurt/frightened/shattered parts of me desperately need love, comfort, stability, and to be soothed. I just can’t reject this aspect of me any more. I’m not willing to do that.

I don’t fully know what this decision means for me. But at least to start, it has involved deeply accepting that there was something about my relationship with my dad that was damaging to me. I keep on hearing over and over, “He hurt me” and I have been reassuring those young parts, “Yes, he did, but you are safe now. Feel this blanket or shawl that is wrapped around you; feel the safety, warmth, and comfort that it surrounds all of me with. I am safe now.”

Sometimes it is like I am being told that certain things happened. Right now I am taking an approach of, “Maybe that literally happened, maybe it didn’t. But for whatever reason, this part of me believes that it did. I’m not going to do anything right now other than say, ‘I understand that for some reason this feels real. Right now the most important thing is that I deeply know that I am safe now.'”

Much of the time, this keeps me from getting too caught up in the memories, but not all of the time. They still manage to suck me in some of the time. And sometimes, when they seem to make sense of body sensations that I have gotten for a very long time, it is hard to not jump to conclusions.

But my heart is breaking just from dealing with the acceptance that something about my relationship with my dad harmed me and accepting the possibility that there may have been sexual abuse. I don’t want to have been the child who was hurt that badly. I don’t want to have been the child whose mother failed her so miserably. I don’t want to have been the child who was only able to hold on to scraps of a sense of safety and who felt them slip through her fingers too often. I don’t want to have been the child that people believed that it was OK to use. I don’t want to have been the child whose body was used against her.

It’s great that I was also brave and resourceful and strong and determined to survive. But dammit, I don’t want to have been forced to be those things so young in order to survive!!! It isn’t a fair trade off. I could have learned how to be those things in ways that didn’t threaten to tear my soul apart. There is nothing that will ever make up for what happened to me.

I can go forward from here. I will have a life that I am grateful for. I will fill it with love and many of the things that were almost ground out of my soul. I am determined that I will have these things, because I have every right to create a life filled with love, beauty, creativity, nurturing, empathy, connectiveness, nature, the desire to stretch and grow and all of the other things that make life worth living for me. I will not let the sick and damaged members of my family define my life.

Yes, that is where I am going and I need to keep my eyes on the focus of that promise, but right now, I hurt. I hurt inside, in my vulnerable parts. I hurt in the greater me, because I see just how much I endured as a child. I don’t think that I can express how awful it is to accept, “Yes, things were that bad. It wasn’t just a bad dream that I will wake up from. I don’t just have an over active imagination. No, I’m not overly sensitive in a way that made me turn nothing into something huge. My family really did hurt me in a way that hurt my heart so badly that right now it feels like pieces of it are breaking off, falling to the floor, and shattering. My daddy hurt me.”

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Today I had an epiphany. It isn’t very often that I have one of those moments when everything shifts and becomes much easier, so I need to celebrate this one. ­čÖé

Over the last few days, I have talked about the turmoil that was stirred up when my mother asked me to call my father for his birthday. It brought to the forefront the need to figure out how to begin to talk with my mother about the fact that the abuse still affects me. I’m not even sure that she believes me when I say that I was abused, because she changes the topic every time I make any reference to being in therapy. She is highly avoidant and because this has been a life long coping skill, she isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Unfortunately, I learned my lessons in being avoidant of conflict all too well from her, making it even more difficult to have any sort of a conversation with her. So, over the last several months, Mama Bear and I keep on circling back around again and again to the questions of “What do I need to say to my mother? How am I going to say it? And how can I prepare myself so that I am able to deal with whatever her reaction is?” The subject comes up, we talk about it, and I become overwhelmed so the actual talk with my mother gets tabled. Each time we circle around, I do get a bit further, but I have been proceeding at a glacial pace.

My mother’s request, on top of her request to send my daughter out to my parents for 2 weeks, has accelerated the need for me to get to the heart of the matter and find my voice. This weekend, it became crystal clear to me that my mom is going to continue to pretend that nothing is terribly wrong and proceed along her way, with her eyes tightly shut to what is going on, if I don’t force the issue. And because she pretends that nothing is wrong, she keeps on doing or saying things that knock me off balance, just as I am starting to develop momentum in a good direction. I deserve better and my family deserves better.

Well, I started off this morning in a shaky place and I wrote to Mama Bear about the fact that my mom hasn’t responded to my e-mail at all and how I realized that a part of me had been holding on to an unrealistic hope. Maybe, somehow I had created a situation where my mom didn’t really understand how much pain I have been in and now that I have made it clear, she will reach out to me with statements of love and support. But by that point, it was pretty hard to hold on to that bit of hope any more, because so much time had gone by since my sending my message to her. Unfortunately, I had already swung to the other extreme of fear that I had so threatened my mother that she wouldn’t ever want to have anything to do with me again! Yep, talk about a neurotic mess- that was me this morning.

Mama Bear responded with her normal good sense and reminded me that it is unlikely that my mother has cut me off completely, it’s just that she automatically reverts to avoidance when faced with a difficult situation. Then she said two things that got my brain turning: “She has very little capacity for figuring out what you need emotionally. And, you need to continue speaking up for yourself in some manner.”

Somehow, seeing those two statements side by side made something click and the obvious finally became clear to me: “Even though she is the mother and I am the daughter, I’m in my 40s now and she isn’t necessarily any more of an adult than I am. In some ways she may be even less. I keep on expecting for her to be the adult in this situation and allow me to be the hurt child. That just isn’t going to happen and I need to protect that hurt child part of me anyways.”

She simply can’t do the mother/adult job that I want for her to do and hear my need for love and support in what I say, without my coming out and having to say, “Dammit, I need your love and support here! This is incredibly hard but it would be less hard if I knew that you believed me and that you were on my side. I have been suffering a lot and part of it is because I’m going through this without your support.”

I know that I am dealing with memories of desperately needing for her to figure out that something is terribly wrong from when I was a child. I really did need for her to rescue me then and I still feel those needs as if they apply to now. But they don’t. I want a relationship with my mother, but if she fell out of my life, I could go on after a time of mourning. My safety is no longer dependent upon whether she can bear to see that I am hurting and that something is wrong.

This takes so much of the pressure off of me. I don’t have to get our interaction “just right” so that my mom’s immediate reaction is both to understand how bad things have been and to not flee. She may very well retreat in order to adjust to what I need to say, but I am her only child and my daughter is her only grandchild- she is highly motivated to retain a connection to us, so she is likely to re-engage.

It also helps to lift me out of a vulnerable place, where I am looking for my mother to provide something that she almost certainly is unable to provide. But I can provide my own nurturing, safety, and protection now. I can either give myself what I need or I can find people who are willing and able to give me what I need.

Even though I often connect strongly with feelings of being a vulnerable child, the reality is that I am not. It sounds crazy to me, but I am in my 40s. I have a daughter who will be entering 3rd grade in the fall. I am an adult, it’s just a matter of getting me to remain connected to that knowledge and to feel confident enough to act from the strength of my adulthood. Today’s epiphany was a big step in that direction.

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“I feel ridiculous! A normal person wouldn’t have such an extreme reaction to the request to call her father for his birthday!”

“You do not have a normal father. You do not have a normal family. Why would you expect to have a normal reaction?”

Mama Bear made a good point there.

This was a part of the phone conversation that I wrote about in Working Through Fears, but I know that I do this all of the time. Too often, I make critical judgments of myself because I am not able to do things in a ‘normal’ manner (whatever that really means.) However, I am dealing with experiences that are out of the ‘normal’ range and that is why I am having ‘abnormal’ responses. It isn’t because I am weak or there is something inherently wrong with me; it is because my brain learned how to respond in certain ways when I was young so I could get through experiences that I should never have been exposed to. I survived, so my brain thinks that I should keep on using the same responses. Fortunately, I am now living in a very different situation, which means that the responses aren’t needed any longer; unfortunately my brain doesn’t fully understand that yet.

We continued on to talk about whether I would respond to my mother’s request…

“I know that you are very frightened and I know that your amygdala is convinced that you are under threat, but are you really in danger right now, if you send what we talked about?”

Pause… “No, not really. But it certainly feels like it.”

“Yes, it does. But you aren’t in danger. In some ways, I am asking you to ignore everything that your instincts are telling you and just go with what your reason is telling you. Right now, your instincts just aren’t going to be right about this, because your amygdala is so caught up in responding to the threat that you were under as a child, but you aren’t under that threat now. You need to decide to do whatever is most right for you, but I want for you to also know that whatever you do, it won’t put you in danger.”

I sat there and thought about this hard and it made a lot of sense. It gave me a way to think about what was going on that was compassionate and understanding, rather than judging. My brain was stuck in having an ‘abnormal’ response and it really did feel like every instinct was screaming, “Danger! Danger!” at me, but I could also see that while my mother’s reaction might be difficult and unpleasant for me to deal with, there was no life and death danger there. Every bit of me was convinced that there was, but there really wasn’t.

Judging myself for having such an extreme reaction to the idea of having an honest dialogue with my mom wasn’t useful or fair. I was dealing with an abnormal situation, and as Mama Bear so often points out, self compassion and understanding generally are more useful than self criticism. Self criticism helps to reinforce my feeling under threat, while compassion and understand can help to dissolve that sense of threat. And so I eased myself into taking a step back, accepting that my intuition told me that communication with my mother was dangerous, but also holding in my mind that the sense of danger was false. Slowly the fear eased and I became able to think about what I wanted to do, rather than just reacting out of fear.

The first step to this process was to accept that I can’t expect to have a normal reaction to a situation that has little to nothing that is normal about it. I don’t think that I am the only one here who tends to become angry with herself because her reactions tend toward the extreme, even when she can see that that extreme isn’t really warranted. So I thought that I would share with you that bit of Mama Bear wisdom… Is what you are dealing with ‘normal’? If not, why would you expect to have a ‘normal’ reaction? Rather than judging your reaction, can you look at it with self compassion?

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“I’m scared.”

Mama Bear is talking to me on the phone because I have spent the day so frightened that I have been close to non-functional most of the time.

“Your voice sounds young, are you feeling young?”

“Yes.”

“I need for you to find your adult voice and bring your adult here.”

Pause…

“Can you locate your adult?”

“Kind of, sort of…”

“OK, bring your adult as close as you can and have her be a part of this as I talk to the child part that is here… You are in a safe place and a safe time. Whatever you are afraid of isn’t happening here and now. You are a grown woman who is capable and strong and you can protect yourself. We can work together to help you.”

As I listen to her voice and try to pull on the stronger, more solid part of me, I feel that part finally starting to engage, to my relief. At last I am able to say, “OK” and both of us hear the change in my voice.

“Good… C. what has you so freaked out?”

“I am scared that something really bad is going to happen to me.”

“You are starting to sound like a child again. I need for you to stay an adult and work with me. That is an old child fear, it isn’t a present fear. What are you afraid about now?”

I feel another overwhelming surge of fear that there is no escaping serious punishment and that I am in real danger: “But I am really, really scared that I’m going to get in trouble for upsetting my mother and I’m going to get hurt really, really, really bad.”

“C., you are sounding about 8. Is there actually anyone there who is going to hurt you?”

It feels like thinking through molasses, but I realize that even though the threat that I am going to be hurt feels so immediate and present, she is right, there isn’t anyone here who is going to hurt me. “No.”

“Your mother might get upset. I really can’t predict how she will react, but you are not in any real danger now that you are an adult. You can take care of yourself and protect yourself. You have your own family now.”

I think to myself, “But she isn’t the one that I am afraid of,” but I don’t say that out loud, instead I concentrate on trying to take in what Mama Bear has been saying.

“What did you end up doing in response to your mom’s request?”

“Nothing.”

“You didn’t respond at all?”

“No, I couldn’t figure out what to say.”

“I thought that you had a good start with what you said that you wanted to send to her last night. You need to do what feels most right for you, but if you say something, you might help to take yourself out of a helpless feeling position.”

She suggests a possible wording that basically says, “I got your e-mail. I am not comfortable talking with Dad right now. I hope to talk with you more about what is going on for me at a later time.”

“Does something like this sound at all possible?” A long pause… “Or not?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

I whisper: “It’s too scary.”

“That’s your 8 year old fear talking again. What are you afraid about in the now?”

I struggle because I do not want to say what comes to mind, but I know that it is what I am most afraid of: “I’m afraid that my mom will think that I am accusing my dad of something.”

Mama Bear says gently, but firmly, “But you are. Not necessarily sexual abuse, but something disturbs you about your relationship. And when you didn’t make that call, you accused him of something being wrong.”

My heart plummets. And I know that she is right. My hope that somehow I could manage to dance around this and avoiding dealing with this with my parents was a completely unrealistic fantasy. There is something that is very wrong about my relationship with my dad. I do not understand it and it drives me crazy that I don’t have a clear idea of what is so wrong. I know what I fear that it is, given what his father did to me and the fact that my dad’s older brother abused at least one of his daughters. But in some ways I am entirely convinced that there was no sexual abuse with him. Of course, when I think about it from the point of view of certain parts, I am just as convinced that he did abuse me.

Other than that, there is a history of petty cruelties, one-ups-man-ship, sending me off to stay with someone he knew was abusive (physically and verbally at the very least), competition for my mother’s attention, belittling the things that I cared about, and just plain being hurtful. But it was all done in the form of “jokes” or teasing and would not have looked “mean” from the outside. In fact, I would guess that he didn’t consider what he was doing to be mean, because it wasn’t done as harshly as his father would have. So, at the very least, I know that there is a history of behaviors that hurt my soul, if nothing else… But I also know that my parents will never be able to see those actions as being so damaging to me, so I can’t imagine trying to talk about them.

So, I sit there for a few minutes, struggling with my fears, both old fears and current fears around saying something to my mom. Repeatedly, I start to be drawn into a state where I feel in physical danger and I pull myself back each time. Finally, I say, “Well, I guess that you are right… No matter what I say to my mom, no one here is going to physically hurt me.”

I think for another couple of minutes, and then: “OK, I am feeling less scared now.”

Mama bear replies warmly, “I am glad to hear it.”

We talked for another couple of minutes, and then I got off the phone, feeling much more secure and grounded than I had since the previous morning. Over the next hour or two, I thought about our conversation. She wasn’t the only one who thought that my not saying anything kept me feeling like a powerless child. I am tired of feeling helpless, because I’m not! So, it’s time for me to start to use some of that strength in my relationship with my parents.

This is what I wrote to my mother:

Dear Mom,

I am in a very difficult place right now and I am just not up to doing the phone call. My hope is that we can talk a bit about what I am dealing with in the not too distant future, but I need to figure some things out first.

Please give Dad my birthday wishes.

Love,

C

Later on that evening, I realized just how different my conversation with Mama Bear was from the way that communication happens (or doesn’t) with my mother. While Mama Bear was kind, she was also very willing to say things or do things that are not pleasant in the moment, if they will benefit me. She kept on pushing at me when I fell back into a frightened child state and she didn’t try to soothe me, but rather she urged me to engage the adult me who could see that I was in a situation where I didn’t need to be scared. In that moment, I needed to be the one to take care of me and I needed to experience that I could do it. She showed me that she believed in my ability to work past my fears and find the strength and stability to deal with the anxiety and chaos inside. She was willing to point out to me that I had already taken the step that I was so afraid of, so I may as well keep on walking and deal with the situation, rather than trying to hide from it. I did not want to hear that, but I am better off for taking it in.

You know, I find it deeply reassuring that Mama Bear treated me like an adult.

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