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Archive for May, 2013

I do a lot of my best thinking while I am out walking and today was no exception.

I went out a noon for a walk on my favorite thinking trail, which winds along a river and through the woods and just let my mind wander to start. I’m not sure what brought it up, but I heard a little voice internally say, “I wish that I didn’t have a body.” I thought about that a bit and then thought, “But if I didn’t have a body, I couldn’t be walking through the woods right now. I couldn’t smell the damp, earthy smells that surround me. I couldn’t notice the way that the light plays on the bark of that tree.” And I felt like I had gotten my insides’ attention, so I continued, “I couldn’t feel this velvety new leaf. I couldn’t smell whatever it is that is blooming. I couldn’t hear the woodpecker beating on the tree.” At some point, it simply changed to my listing the things that I was able to do because I have a body. “I can taste ice cream. I can hear all of the birds singing. I can feel both the warm sun and the cool breeze against my skin. I can dip my hot feet into a cool stream. I can stroke my daughter’s hair.” After about 10 minutes of letting things that I love wander through my mind, I realized that most of me was grateful to have a body, so I could experience those things. In fact, at that moment, the parts of me that I was in contact with were thoroughly grateful to be alive.

As I continued to walk, I marveled over it feeling safe for me to feel myself fully connected and living in that moment. I wasn’t just existing, but I was daring to feel really alive and to experience the feast for my senses that is otherwise known as spring in the woods.

I climbed up a cliff into another section of the forest, and my thoughts changed a bit. I remembered something that happened in yesterday’s session. I had connected with my anger and just how much I wish that I had been able to fight back when I was a child, so I could have saved myself. Mama Bear’s response was, “I really wish that you could have taken a baseball bat to your grandfather and beaten the shit out of him, but that just wasn’t possible. You did fight back though. You fought back the best way that you could. You survived and you beat him.”

As I thought about that, I realized that even though I often keep myself from feeling my strength, I showed an amazing amount of strength as a child. It was the strength of endurance, of keeping on going, no matter what, of surviving, even when parts of me were convinced that I was dead. It also was a strength that I had to hide, because it wasn’t safe to show that I was strong, so I learned to not fully live into my strength. Well, now things are different. It is safe for me to be actively strong now. It is safe for me to take action on my behalf. It is safe for me to experience myself as strong and to let others see the strength.

And I cried. They were good tears, tears of relief, but also tears of intense emotion. Off and on since then, I have felt almost dizzy because things are shifting internally. And I am astonished to feel myself starting to reach out towards life, rather than holding back in an attempt to protect myself.

A couple of hours later, I had my scheduled phone check in with Mama Bear and I told her what had happened. She probably understands better than anyone just how profoundly amazing it was for me to joyfully experience and accept my body’s senses today and so she celebrated with me for a bit. When I started to admit that I knew that how I feel today isn’t permanent, she said something deeply reassuring to me. “Yes, this experience will fade and you will lose touch with it in the face of everything that you are dealing with, but now that you have found your way here, you will be able to find your way back again. And each time that you find your way back, it will become easier the next time. You might misplace it for awhile, but nothing can take this away from you now that you have found it within you.”

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Today I did something in session that I have never been able to do before. Victories feel so hard won that they need to be celebrated! 🙂

In general, when I start to get too overwhelmed emotionally, I escape the intensity by going into denial. “None of this could have happened to me.” “It can’t have really been this bad.” “How can I think something like this? It’s crazy?!?” For a long time, I couldn’t even see that this process was happening until I was already entrenched in denial, and then I would have to slowly work my way out of it again. Two or three months ago, Mama Bear pointed out to me that the denial was in reaction to my being phobic of the intense emotions that arise around the abuse and my family relationships.

Once that was pointed out, I was able to start paying more attention to how I respond to strong feelings and in particular what I do when I start to feel overwhelmed. I have a lot of different ways of escaping the emotions… One method of distracting myself was to fall into denial about the abuse in general. Another method was to simply shut down and go numb. Yet another was to start to have flashes of memories. And then there was the ever popular escape of dissociation. All of these experiences are highly unpleasant and to be avoided in their own right, and yet somewhere inside, they were preferable to staying with those impossible feelings. Sometimes the mind does things that can cause a lot of pain in order to escape seemingly unendurable distress. While recognizing that I was playing a part in triggering memories and such was quite unpleasant, it also empowered me to help myself.

So, today I was in session and I can’t even remember what I was talking about, but I was feeling extremely intense grief and emotional pain. It was to the point where I would normally start to dissociate, usually by fleeing into a child state, and Mama Bear even asked me, “Are you still here with me?” I couldn’t speak, so I nodded my head, I was very much there; I was connected to all of that pain and to the me that normally holds it. But after a bit, it started to be too much. While I didn’t recognize that it had become too much, I did catch the first thoughts of denial, “There is no way that any of this could have happened to me! How could I think it at all?” I realized what I was doing and thought, “I really don’t want to go there. Let’s not go down that path, because it just causes too much stress and pain. My reacting with denial means that I have become overwhelmed and I need to turn the intensity down.” So I imagined taking a step or two back, and it worked! The intensity went down and the denial faded away.

If you had asked me at the beginning of the year if I could manage to catch and turn down the intensity all on my own, I would have looked at you as if you had two heads. I knew that it should be possible, but at that time my emotions could escalate so quickly that I couldn’t hope to catch what was going on in time, never mind control it myself. But what I did today was the product of months of Mama Bear pointing out to me when I was at the point of overwhelm and my stopping whatever we were doing, breathing, and grounding. And what do you know, I finally learned how to recognize that I was at the point of becoming overwhelmed and reduce the intensity all on my own. For your average person, it probably would be a trivial task, but for someone who learned to do anything in order to avoid the “dangerous” emotions, this was a real accomplishment.

So the next time I am working on something with Mama Bear for what seems like the 500th time, I need to remind myself, that’s how I learn and eventually it will pay off. And probably, when it works, it will come as a complete surprise, like it did today.

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I guess that this has turned into the memory series at this point. I’m sorry if I am boring anyone, but writing here helps me to think things through.

One of the other realizations that I have had this week is that while I will never be able verify what “really” did or did not happen when I was a child in terms of specific memories, there are somethings about all of this that I can say for certain. Right here and right now, I am experiencing these things that seem to be memories/flashbacks of the abuses that happened when I was a child. I know that I am having these experiences now. I know that they are distressing to me now. I know that they are a reflection of the trauma that I suffered as a child. Either they are a direct reflection and they are accurate memories or they are distorted in some way and they are not accurate memories, but either way I would not be experiencing them if I had not been traumatized.

I suddenly feel like I am taking myself off the hook of needing to figure out right now whether it “really” happened or not. Because it finally really doesn’t matter. I’ve heard it enough times from enough people and struggled with accepting it enough, and I actually seem to be getting that no matter what my grandfather chose to do to me or make me do, it is his shame, not mine. So even if it did actually happen, I’m not this horribly tainted, disgusting person that no one will ever want to touch or love. That was the person that my grandfather made himself into, that isn’t me. And if it didn’t “really” happen, it isn’t my fault that it is in my mind. I don’t have it there because I am a “horrible person” with a “sick imagination,” I have it there because I am a person with a traumatized brain.

Either way, it isn’t my fault that I have these things in my mind and I don’t have to be ashamed of them. Either way, I can continue to work and heal and things will get better. Either way, it’s OK to be angry at my grandfather and hate that he hurt me in ways that leaves these things in my mind.

Starting to look at things this way suddenly made it possible to write down and send Mama Bear an e-mail telling her about the memory that I talked about in Do I even have a story? In some ways, I am queasy about having put it down in words and knowing that she knows about the most shameful and disgusting things that I seem to remember happening. And in other ways, it feels like I am thumbing my nose at my grandfather and saying, “I am not going to keep your secrets any longer. They make me feel sick and horrible about myself. I refuse to hide them inside of me any more.” Whether or not things happened exactly the way that I remember, something had to have happened to have put that type of thing into my mind.

You know, I’m angry for the child that I was. Mama Bear’s response included a statement that what happened had nothing to do with anything that I did wrong; I was surviving. But what I did to survive left me with a horrible burden of disgust, horror, and shame that I have been carrying around for decades. I am angry that I had to survive that way.

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I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since my last post. Over the last year or so, I have been beating myself bloody against a wall, trying to figure out what “really” did or did not happen when I was a child. Mama Bear keeps on telling me that the details don’t matter, because she sees how I am tormenting myself over whether what I seem to be remembering is “real” or not. And in principle, I agree that the most important thing is that I know and accept the basic outlines of what happened and work from there, but I just haven’t been able to let go of these memory type things.

Because there is so much confusion and so much of the abuse happened at such a young age, there is just so much room for things not being exactly what they seem to be in memories. The most important confusion is that there were a lot of personality characteristics that were similar between my father and grandfather (his father) and I had to have been so frightened that my father would do the same things to me that my grandfather did. Some parts of me seem to think that he did, while the vast majority of me doesn’t. I have experienced flashback type things that are so vivid and yet when talking about them with Mama Bear, she has told me that from what I am experiencing, it is unclear whether these things happened or they are memory type things born of my fears. As she said, “I used to think that vividness was an indicator of accuracy, as well, but the research just hasn’t shown that to be the case. I really wish that we could tell one way or the other, because I see how much it is driving you crazy, but from what you are telling me, we just can’t right now. Maybe we will be able to in the future, but we can’t right now. What we do know is that you do not trust your father and your relationship with him is very troubled and that is what we need to work from.”

So, Mama Bear is working to help me find some balance with these things that I don’t even know whether I should be calling memories or not.

A couple of weeks ago, something that looked like a memory came up and it was very distressing to me for a variety of reasons. I wrote to Mama Bear a bit about it in an e-mail and then I talked with her in the next session. It came up that there was something that I felt like I needed to tell her about it, but I didn’t feel like I could. “Why don’t you feel like you can tell me?” she asked. “Because I feel like I am both being told, ‘Don’t talk about the memories’ and ‘Do tell me about the memories’ and I don’t really know what’s OK!”

As we talked further, I realized that Mama Bear is trying to do an almost impossible task right now. She is trying to validate and accept what I am telling her in a way that allows me to feel heard and contained in my grief and pain. But she is also trying to rein me in and she has been subtly discouraging me from talking much at all about the memories. Inside, I had been thinking that she was doing this because she was tired of hearing about these horrible things or she didn’t believe me or she needed a break or she thought that if I stopped talking about it then it would go away or… But when we talked, I finally started to accept that it wasn’t any of those things, her actual reasons are quite different.

The primary reason is because when I start to talk about the memories, I tend to trigger myself and very often end up in a bad place and we spend much of the session trying to get me back to here and now, rather than doing other therapeutic work. That is destabilizing and hard on me, leaving me in a vulnerable state for days, and it wastes time and energy that could have been otherwise been more productively used.

Another reason is because she knows that I have a tendency to overly dwell on some of the memory type things that come up in an attempt to figure out whether they really happened, and so I run the risk of solidifying and entrenching them in my mind simply by paying so much attention to them. I may end up with something stuck in my mind that might have “dissolved” if left alone (a few things have), and most importantly, I may end up coming to the erroneous conclusion that something happened that didn’t. The only reason she cares about that is that these are high stakes matters. If I decide that my dad abused me and he didn’t, then I will have caused myself and my family a world of pain that could have been avoided. If I decide that a certain type of abuse happened with my grandfather that is extremely distressing to me and it didn’t actually, then I will have unnecessarily put myself through that pain.

It wasn’t until this past week that I fully appreciated just how nearly impossibly I have made this task for her. Not through any intent of mine, but just because that is how things were set up inside of me. I am extremely sensitive to any whiff of “don’t talk” “I don’t want to hear you” or “I don’t believe you” and will interpret even a hint of that to be a rejection and shut down. It may be that I just shut down in an area and don’t even realize it for weeks. But I also have proven to all too easily end up in a state where I end up having flashbacks or other memory type experiences on a frequent basis, if I am not actively working to keep things as calm, soothed, and contained inside as possible. Yep, I am not making Mama Bear’s job easy for her, but maybe now that I see this a bit more clearly, I can make things a bit easier for both of us.

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I guess that I should just be grateful that my mind protects me from clearly knowing what happened to me as a child, since it obviously was too much for me to handle remembering that it happened, but sometimes I feel robbed of having a story. Sometimes I want to be able to say with certainty “X, Y, and Z happened to me and it was horrible, but I refuse to keep my grandfather’s secrets any longer and I’m not going to hide what he did.” But I have all of these flashbacks and seeming memories that could be memories that might have literally happened, or they might not. I feel like I can’t talk about what I seem to remember happening, because any single thing might not actually have happened, but that leaves me restricted to talking in vague generalities.

Today, while I was talking to Mama Bear about something all together different (my difficulties with going to bed- see Why won’t I go to bed?), she helped me to understand that by feeling as if I need to keep my fears hidden from my husband, I was treating them as if they were shameful. There is something about the action of keeping secrets that just magnifies shame, and conversely there is something about wisely sharing secrets that can help to break the bonds of shame. And often, around abuse, shame helps to preserve fear, so talking with him about my fears related to his coming to bed after I do might by itself convince enough of me that I really don’t have anything to fear in my current situation. It may be the easiest way to prove to myself that now is entirely different from then, because I will have behaved in a way that was impossible then.

Well, you know what, I’ve realized that I’m really tired of feeling like I have to keep the secrets of what happened. But it just feels so wrong to risk saying that something happened when it might not have. How can I accuse my grandfather of such terrible things, when I have no proof? As a result, I feel like I am in a bind: I need to start to let out the secrets, but I also need to maintain my integrity which seems to mean that I have to be completely certain of what I say, before I say it. Unfortunately, chances are good that I will never be 100% sure that any single thing happened, even though I can be quite certain of what the over all picture looks like.

There is one incident in particular that is on my mind tonight. I have given Mama Bear a vague idea of what happened, although I have never been able to tell her any specifics. I certainly haven’t been able to say anything about it to anyone else. Mama Bear assures me that she believes that it could have happened, because she has heard of similar things happening to other children, but inside I am so convinced that no one will ever believe me. Today, I realized that something that I have been experiencing over the last couple of days seems to be another piece of that memory. While I don’t want to be alone with it, I also can’t bring myself to tell Mama Bear, because I am convinced that even if she believed me before, she won’t now. And the shame and disgust that goes with it all is so very intense that I feel like I am going to choke on it.

The crazy thing is that if someone else here described what I seem to remember, I would find it horrific to hear that it happened to that person, but I also know that it is definitely within the realm of possibility and would believe the person. Sometimes people push degrading the child that they are abusing to the maximum and this would do that.

Maybe because it’s because the shame and disgust are so strong with this memory that some of me wants so much to just say, “I seem to remember X happening” and not worry about the consequences. I want to get it out of me. I want to know that other people can hear what I have said and that the words had weight and meaning- they didn’t just evaporate. That it matters that I carry the burden of these bizarre acts and I don’t have to just try to hold them inside, silently. That even though what I seem to remember seems like craziness, I am not crazy.

What I carry around feels anything but vague. Confused sometimes, yes, but not vague. So why am I stuck with a vague story? Am I really stuck with it? What would it mean if I said that I thought that things happened, even if I can never prove it? It’s not like I’m making the accusations to anyone who actually knew the man. And I know that he did some of these things, I’m just not 100% sure which of these things happened exactly the way that I seem to remember them. But does it really have to be my responsibility to say nothing clearly in that case? I feel like my voice has been taken away or at least muted when it comes to crying out about what was done. If no one says, “X, Y, and Z happened to me” when Z feels like it would be unbelievable to others, then people will never learn that Z can happen.

I don’t know, I really don’t know what is right to do here. How have you handled similar issues around sharing your story?

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“Look at me. Can you see that I see you and I see the pain that you suffer?”

I looked Mama Bear in the eyes as she asked me this question and I suddenly felt as though I had been stabbed in the gut. I cried out in pain, curled up in a protective ball, and started to sob.

Needless to say, this was not the reaction that Mama Bear had anticipated, after all, I had just told her about a part and how that part expresses what it is like to be in so much pain and yet have everyone believe that everything is OK. It leaves me feeling as though the me who hurts is invisible to the world. And to my young parts, having the hurt be invisible means that no one will ever help me to stop it.

As I cried, Mama Bear gently said, “That obviously went very deep for some reason. When you are able to, can you tell me what you know about what just happened?”

I cast around for an answer for a bit and then I understood… “It is scary being seen, because if I am seen that means that I am real and my feelings are real and what happened is real.”

“Ah… This tells us that you are feeling a great deal of ambivalence around being seen.”

And she was correct. While it is toned down at the moment, I can still feel that push and pull of knowing in my bones that I need to be seen and yet I am terrified to really be seen.

I need to feel as though I can show all of me to at least one or two people and that it is safe to show many of the parts that are hard to look at to a trusted handful more. I need to experience it being safe to show the deepest pain and the most shameful secrets to someone so I can more fully understand that my mother abandoning me to the pain and abuse was about her limitations, not about my being too horrible or damaged for anyone to ever be able to tolerate.

But at the same time, my survival as a child depended on my keeping the abuse unreal for me. The only way that I could function in my everyday world was to have that nightmare simply be a nightmare and nothing more. None of it was real and the me that carried the abuse wasn’t real either. Some parts of me are still holding on to that way of experiencing, or rather not experiencing myself.

“I think that a part of you still doesn’t understand that you are safe now and that you don’t have to hide behind not being real.”

I stared at Mama Bear, searching for words, and she said, “Or is that wrong? How is it for you?”

“No. It’s right, it’s just that it is so obviously right that I don’t know what to say.”

And this is something I keep on stumbling over- parts of me still don’t get the fact that not only is the abuse not happening at this moment, but I am no longer a helpless child. What I remember simply can’t happen again, because at the very least, I now have the resources of an adult and I can protect myself physically and emotionally. I also have many people who would help me if I was in danger and I know how to get the help that I need. And then there is the simple fact that everyone who harmed me is at least far, far away, if not dead.

I don’t know what it is going to take to get these parts to understand that it is impossible for the flashbacks to come to life and start to happen to me again. No matter how immediate they feel and how vivid they are, they are about events that happened more than 3 decades ago. I might get sucked into re-experiencing one, but as miserable as that is, I am actually in a safe here and now, even if I have lost track of that fact for the moment. I won’t emerge from a flashback actually bloody and with body fluids on me, because it can’t actually happen now. I guess that I will convince myself slowly, bit by bit, and eventually enough of me will fully learn that in the now, I am safe from the abuse of the past. Those hands can never reach out for me again. Those fingers can never go places they should never have gone. My body is safe now. It is mine.

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I did something for myself today that I have needed to do for awhile. I got a massage. I haven’t gotten a full massage in 3 or 4 years- only targeted ones when I was doing physical therapy for the herniated disk in my neck or quick chair massages. This might seem like a bit of an odd time to decide to get one, since I have been having trouble with being triggered, but I have also been holding so much tension in my neck, shoulders, and back that not only was I in pain, but I have been experiencing numbness extending down into my fingers. Experiencing pain in my body is triggering itself.

I have a history with this massage therapist (A.); we started to work together when I previously lived in this town and I was pregnant with my daughter. She helped me get through a difficult and frightening pregnancy and then she helped me get through nursing. While I hadn’t seen her in about seven years, in my mind, she is an established safe person. I don’t think that I would have dared to try a massage just right now with a new massage therapist, because if it started to go wrong, it could go very wrong. My first attempt at massage went quite wrong. I wasn’t prepared for what it would be like and I ended up being massively triggered, which required that I flee the massage. While I was in that triggered state, I found myself on a pedestrian bridge that was several stories up and I briefly, but seriously considered throwing myself over the side, until I was able to force myself off it and to contained place where I could pull myself back together. So I don’t lightly go into a massage and I recommend that an abuse survivor considering a massage have a good idea of how they will react and a back up plan in case they don’t.

As I said, I know A. fairly well, I live only 5 minutes from her office, and my husband’s work place is only about 5 minutes away. I felt that I could manage in the off chance that something massively went wrong.

We started out chatting a bit to catch up on life history for both of us over the last several years and then I told her about the state of my body. I reminded her that I was sexually abused and told her that I have been doing some intense work recently and that while I thought that I would be OK with her, she needed to be aware that the potential was there that I might not be. Her response was, “I will be sure to hold you sweetly and gently with that knowledge.” One of the nice things about working with A. is that she doesn’t get all freaked out by the mention of sexual abuse, but she also recognizes the seriousness of it and how it can come out in the body. Frankly, it was healing to be able to calmly remind someone that I had been abused knowing that she could handle the information appropriately and I didn’t need to worry about it. It is so different from telling most health care providers.

We started the massage, and during the massage, I noticed several things. First, I am much better able to tolerate being in my body during a massage than I ever have been in the past. This was a huge surprise to me, because I have been so aware of how dissociative I have been lately and I would have expected the opposite. It makes me wonder what sort of progress am I making that I have no idea that I am making. Second, I was able to work with the massage for the first time and just let myself be in it. I didn’t worry about whether she was going to be able to resolve a particular knot; I decided to trust her and her knowledge of the human body and try to just breathe as much as possible during the massage. That was an unexpected benefit of this mindfullness stuff! 🙂 Third, at one point, I could feel a young part starting to get upset and I started to “talk” to that part about how not only can touch be safe, but some people even use touch to help to heal. That is what A. was doing with me; her touch was a caring, healing touch. I felt like several little ones gathered around the table for a bit, marveling at the fact that A. really was touching me in a way that helped me and I had no concern that she would do anything harmful to me. Fourth, soon after that and towards the end of the massage, I felt like there was a connection with the hurt in me that I was able to just sit with, and then I felt myself cold and I started to tremble. It didn’t feel a bad sort of shaking and I know enough from doing a bit of sensorimotor reading to know that trembling can actually be a sign of processing or release, so I just let it be. A. was working on my feet at that point and while she slowed the work down, became even more gentle, and spent a bit of time laying her hands on me and just breathing, there was no sense of worry from her. She was just a calm and soothing presence.

When she finished and left to let me dressed, she also told me to take as much time as I needed, so rather than trying to force it to stop, I let the trembling develop into something stronger and then it felt like my body was trying to expel some of the pain. After she came back, we talked for a bit and she just sat with me while I grounded, because at that point, I had started to dissociate. She told me that she was glad when she first saw me get cold (I needed a blanket) and then the trembling develop, because that meant the the parasympathetic system had been involved. And healing of trauma can occur when there is activation of the parasympathetic system.

I went in today hoping for some relief with my muscle tension and not only received that, but also had an experience that was healing to me in other ways. What an unexpected gift. And what a reminder of how while the brain stores the trauma, there is a mind body connection in trauma that is so important to remember and something as simple as touch can activate that healing. That is part of the reason it is so important to me that Mama Bear will hold my hand when a child part is struggling.

The massage was expensive and I had used gift money to get it done. I wasn’t anticipating doing another one until around Christmas, but this was so valuable that I’m considering talking with Mama Bear about it. I wonder if I schedule a massage a day before a therapy session, there might be a way to then piggyback some of the gentle healing benefits of the massage on the the therapy session. Whether or not I coordinate it with therapy, it may be valuable enough for me to find some way to manage a massage every 2 or 3 months during this difficult period.

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