Archive for June, 2014

Lisa Marie Sanders Time

Lisa Marie Sanders

Continued from Breaking Down Denial

At first I thought that I could deal with the shock of losing the basis for those last holdouts of denial all on my own. Mama Bear is out of town for most of a week, so I did not have my second session of the week. I knew that I could e-mail her, but I didn’t know if she would have computer access while she was gone. I knew that I could text or even call her, if need be, but I resist doing that.

At first things were difficult, but manageable. Unfortunately, by the next day I had started to unravel under the stress. I experienced a memory that fills in a gap that I probably wasn’t really ready to experience. I started to feel young, lost, and alone. I tried telling some of my friends that I was in distress, which helped the adult me feel supported, but I couldn’t tell them the details and the younger parts still felt incredibly alone. Finally, I realized that the burden of what had come together all at once was too much for me to carry alone. If I didn’t let Mama Bear know what had happened and create a feeling of connection, I would keep on unraveling until I was in a full blown crisis. I don’t have to try to do this alone any more.

I sent Mama Bear a long series of texts, explaining that I was trying to avert a crisis by telling what had happened and asking for a hand clasp to create some connection. She responded with “a good firm hand clasp”, a reassurance that we would discuss what had happened, and checking to make sure that I didn’t need more from her at that point. It worked. It kept me from getting any more worked up and I started to calm.

That evening I finished an e-mail to Mama Bear, talking about what had happened, what it had brought up for me directly and then other things that had been triggered indirectly. It was a long and complicated e-mail with material for probably a good two months worth of therapy, if not more.

In her response to me, she said, “You have sent this to me and we will address this together.” Together. I know that she has said that we will work on things “together” in the past, but for some reason that word is deeply reassuring and calming to me right now. She knows what she is committing to and I have seen that she is not afraid to deal with what many people would quail before. If she says that we will deal with it together, I can trust that she will follow through and be there for me. I don’t have to be alone because I am afraid or ashamed anymore. What I fear and am shamed by doesn’t seem to phase her; she keeps on seeing me in front of her, not the ugliness that was done to me. Together. I have such a deep wound from having to deal all on my own, for all of those years, with what happened and the experience of dealing with it together with someone who cares for me is profoundly healing by itself. There is no shame in all of this being too much for me to deal with alone. No person should ever have to deal with such trauma without the support of others; we seem to be designed to need others when we are in distress. Right now, I can’t get out of my head what a relief it is to know that Mama Bear and I will deal with whatever we need to, together.

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A few days ago, I ran across something in an old journal entry. I’m pretty sure that most anyone who deals with dissociated memories of abuse also deals with fears that the memories didn’t “really” happen- that they just “made up” the memories. The reality is that memory is complicated and malleable. Under the best of circumstances it doesn’t function like a video recorder and is subject to distortion. Under the pressures of intense trauma being done to a small child and then the child trying to contain and make sense of what happened, it’s quite likely that what is remembered is not quite exactly what happened in some way. Sometimes the memories aren’t clear, particularly when they are missing important pieces of information or only involve one sense, and so they are susceptible to distortion while trying to make sense of them. When good therapists work with clients who are dealing with dissociated memories, they never probe for the memories, but allow them to emerge in their own time. These therapists also won’t say which memories or parts of memories they think are accurate, because it is the person who is remembering that is the best judge.

When I started therapy with Mama Bear, it was at the height of the “false memory syndrome” frenzy. At some point during that first year, I heard about it, and it did terrible damage to my ability to trust what was emerging. In many ways, it was a handy excuse for the parts of me that needed for me to stop looking at my history. “You can’t trust your memory. You can’t trust your mind. It’s impossible for you to have never seen any signs that this abuse was there.”

Well, yes, I had started to be afraid of sex right after I got married, as soon as I was safe from my family. But maybe I just have sexual issues for some other reason. Besides, it started to get really bad after I found and read a book that contained something about sexual abuse in it. Maybe that book started the whole idea? And then around the same time, I saw an Oprah show with Truddi Chase. That’s also around the same time that I can identify first having disruptive dissociative symptoms while in public. Of course, at the time I had no idea that they were dissociative symptoms and simply was bewildered and frightened by what I was experiencing. But maybe the dissociation was suggested to me by that show and somehow my mind took it and eventually developed it into something that looks like a dissociative disorder?

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. I always had the doubt that somehow the idea had been planted in my mind and my mind developed it into this whole elaborate, tortuous experience. As I worked with various therapists and as I learned more about dissociation, the doubt eased, because it really is pretty preposterous that everything could fit together so well, match so exactly with what things would look like if the abuse had happened, and, most importantly, that significant healing and relief would be experienced when I accepted the reality of the abuse experiences. But underneath it all, there still was that nagging doubt, “But I first heard about sexual abuse and dissociation around the same time that I started to experience symptoms…”

Then I read that journal entry on Wednesday. When I read it, I understood that I was wrong about the time line. I described having an emotional memory of the abuse with my father triggered in a sexual situation with my then fiance, months before the wedding. I also described a part stopping me from being able to talk with my fiance about what had happened. I had no idea that there was a part involved, all I knew what that when I tried to talk, I felt as though I was being suffocated.

This all happened long before I was exposed to information about sexual abuse and dissociation. And I know from the description of what happened that I was triggered by a memory with my father, not my grandfather. Deep inside, I had still been hoping that maybe I was wrong about my father, but I’m not. Furthermore, the memory belongs to a group of things that happened that I had really been hoping I had somehow distorted under the stress of the memories coming out and that they hadn’t actually happened.

Over the course of two journal pages, I had the basis for all of my denial torn out from under me. Yes, denial doesn’t really rely upon logic, but by this point it has been weakened enough over all that hitting me in the face with evidence that counters the denial makes it pretty hard to keep it up. Being confronted in all of those areas at the same time was a big shock for me, though. Too big of a shock to deal with on my own.

Continued in Together

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I’m starting to try to puzzle through something and writing here often helps that process, so here goes with my thoughts and hopefully they will make sense to both me and you in the end.  🙂

Today, in session, I was triggered and I started to experience memories in the form of body sensations.  At the direction of Mama Bear, I first tried just breathing and then focusing back on our conversation which was about trying to help establish that I am not under threat the way that I feel like I am.  But that wasn’t enough and I fairly quickly spoke up, “I can’t focus on what we are talking about because I am being distracted by the memory sensations that are still plaguing me.”

“That’s good that you told me.  What does the part of you that is frightened want from you in order to feel safer?”

I paused, pulled the soft blanket on the couch over my lap and started to stroke it.  “To realize that those sensations aren’t happening right now, but I really am feeling the softness of the blanket that I am touching right now.”  I continued to stroke the blanket and really focused on what I was feeling at that moment through my hands.

“That’s good.  Keep on doing that.”

Touch may very well be the sense that I most naturally oriented towards.  It certainly is the sense that my memories seem to be most vivid in and it is the one that I generally find most effective for grounding.  It may be one of the reasons that dissociation was so important for me.  You can close your eyes to not see what is happening, but the only way that you can avoid the sensations is to dissociate.

As I sat there, with the blanket over my lap, and was able to move on with the session, I found myself running my hand over the blanket that covered my leg over and over again.  I spend a lot of time in my sessions either rubbing my arms or my legs, which I generally think of as one of the ways that I help to keep myself grounded in the face of emotionally challenging material.  I’m sure that is part of it, but today the thought occurred to me that the feel of stroking my leg through the blanket simply felt good, too.  I think that I was soothing myself by giving myself something pleasant to experience while also dealing with the chaos that kept on pushing at me from the inside.

But as quickly as I noticed that it felt good, I had to stop thinking about it, because the thought was incredibly threatening.  After the session, it occurred to me to wonder why should it feel so wrong to think about how something that I was doing felt good? Or more even worse that I might be doing something because it felt good to me. It felt like I had caught myself doing something bad/dirty, but what is bad about simple touch?  It feels like my reaction is a bit like how I would feel if I had been touching myself sexually, just a lot less strong.  But there was nothing sexual about the touch at all.  It was more like the way that I sometimes stroke my daughter’s arm or back when she is upset about something and needs contact.

So tonight I find myself going around and around in my head about the idea of touch and realizing that I naturally like touch.  I want that physical contact and comfort.  Many times it reaches me better than words do.  And not just when I am upset, but when I am feeling happy or like celebrating something, too.  I naturally want to be able to put an arm around a friend’s shoulders or give her a quick hug because I am happy for her, but up to now my traumatic reactions have hidden all of that from me.  I want that contact with the people I care about and feel safe with.  I want it very much.  I’ve spent my whole life putting out “don’t touch me” messages because I was taught to be afraid of touch, not because I naturally don’t like it.

This evening, I was triggered by something else and stuck in a frightened, young state.  Logistics first kept me from going to my husband for help grounding the way that I wanted to and then I was stuck in a bad state and unable to figure out how to reach out for help from him.  However, when he came to bed, I put my head on his chest and just concentrated on feeling him there, a loving and safe presence.  When I told him that being there with him helped me to feel more calm and safe than I had all evening, he began to gently rub my back, shoulders, and arms.  I allowed myself to simply feel what it felt like for him to touch me that way.  The part of me that often comes out in sexual situations started to be evoked, but I made myself really pay attention to how he was touching me and how I was experiencing it.  There was nothing sexual about it.  It was loving, warm, and connecting, but not sexual.  Yes, there was something similar to what I experience with him in sexual situations, but that is because our touch at those times also has these same basic qualities of loving, healthy touch but with sexuality added on top of it.

What an idea.  Touch can feel good without being sexual.  I think that it can feel very good, as scary as that is to say.  Just because something feels good doesn’t mean that it is dangerous, despite what I was taught as a child.  I was exposed to sexual contact way too young and I think that everything just got all muddled together in terms of touch, so now I am shocked to discover 40 years later that it is not just safe to have physical contact with certain people, but it’s natural to find that sort of contact pleasurable.  It isn’t forced sexual contact, in fact with most people it isn’t sexual at all, so it is safe for me to experience the pleasure that I find in it.

This is where I have a lot of work to do:  learning to accept that there is no shame in experiencing physical pleasure, that there is a difference between simple physical pleasure and sexual pleasure, and that the people that I would even consider having any physical contact with are not the type of people who would want to have forced sexual contact with me.  Part of me understands those concepts, but for the vast majority of me, they are foreign and frightening thoughts.

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I’ve been thinking about attachment, security, and how children find a sense of safety. In my situation, as a child, my mother was my source of safety. I knew that if I was in physical contact with her or she was paying close attention to me, no one would hurt me. There were times when we were very close, perhaps almost too close, because my father was in the military and he would be gone for up to a year at a time. Unfortunately, when he was around, she wasn’t able to pay as close of attention as she would like to think that she did. There are lots of reasons for this, some of which I probably can’t even guess at. I don’t think that she intentionally allowed me to be abused, but I do think that most likely she couldn’t allow herself to see what was going on.

Anyways, I have these funny responses to attachment, especially when it comes to dealing with the abuse. I guess that this makes sense, because in normal day to day life, there were some attachment issues with my mother, but she generally was pretty much there for me. As a result, I was able to recognize a healthy life partner and develop a marriage that has lasted 25 years. But in regards to the abuse, I’m simply was an attachment disaster. It was when I most desperately needed for my mother to be there for me that I experienced what seemed to be her abandonment. The situation was too complicated for it to be simple abandonment, but that is how I experienced it, which is what is important for developing attachment. I saw that she was there on a day to day basis and she was warm and caring, but somehow I was left to deal with the abuse all on my own. I don’t know how much of it was my hiding what was going on due to a perceived need to protect her from the knowledge, how much was an assumption that she had to know that something so overwhelming was going on, how much was my not telling because of threats, how much was my trying to tell her and her not understanding, how much was my belief that she didn’t want to know. The end result is that I needed for my mother to be there for me and she wasn’t.

Over the last few months, my relationship with Mama Bear has been developing to the point where I finally have really let her in so she can support me. While I have been dealing with these terrible memories, I have increasingly used my sense of connection with her to not only help me through the session, but to also keep myself in an OK state outside of session. Even when I have told her the worst details, she has remained calm, grounded in the now, and there with me. She has shown signs of outrage but there always is an underlying calmness to her. That is deeply reassuring to me- even though I am in serious distress because I am engaged with the memory, what happened isn’t so awful and potent that it take over my environment. Mama Bear can listen to what happened, be involved enough to understand how horrible it was (as much as is possible from the outside), be there with me, and yet still be an oasis of calm for me. Between sessions, the memory of her being there for me in the face of the memory and the knowledge that I always have her care combine to help me keep the terrible memories contained. I am no longer alone with the abuse.

I have been thinking today about an example of when I was not allowed to maintain/repair the connection that I needed with my mother. When I was 10, my mother went abroad to join my father for 2 1/2 months and I was sent to stay with my grandparents. Mostly I stayed with my maternal grandmother who was neglectful and often cruel at best. For instance, she would shame me for needing money to buy a school lunch, even though it wasn’t my fault that my mother had not given me money for this purpose. Most of my time in her house is a blank, but what I do recall is a sense of loneliness, shame, and sadness. From what I remember, she sent me to stay with my paternal grandparents as often as she could- weekends, Christmas break, and any school holidays. My paternal grandfather was one of my abusers and he was particularly cruel. This was a man who enjoyed hurting people. I remember almost nothing of being at their house. I’m not sure which of the abuse memories belong to that time, but I think that it is a safe assumption that he created a little hell for me during that visit.

I remember having a hard time with not knowing a concrete date as to when my parents would arrive. Once it got to be the right month, I kept on hoping that my mother would come and get me earlier than planned. My father likes to surprise people, so I had no warning- they suddenly were there. The next few days are a blur, but what I do remember is desperately wanting to be in constant contact with my mother. Being near her wasn’t enough, I needed to touch her. For years I thought that I wanted to be near her because I knew that my grandfather couldn’t hurt me with her there, but now I understand now that I also was doing my best to repair my sense of connection to her. I think that 2 1/2 months of separation would have been difficult for most 10 year olds in and of itself. Throw in a generally hostile environment and it would be difficult for anyone. Add on top of the rest of it sadistic sexual abuse, and the result was a frantic need for any safe connection that would help me to manage the emotional damage done to me.

My father doesn’t like to share my mother’s attention with me. Even now, when we are together, he will find ways to refocus attention onto himself, if we are paying too close of attention to each other. He’s even been known to distract my mother by fondling her breasts while she was on the phone with me. When they showed up after 2 1/2 months and I was obviously very needy for my mother’s attention, my father grudgingly allowed it. But after a week, maybe a week and a half, when I showed no signs of letting up on my need to be in physical contact with her as much of the time as possible, he got angry. I remember him shaming me, saying that I was too old to need the contact and that I was burdening my mother by always dragging on her.

Now days, one of my problems is that the greater my distress, the more difficult I find it to reach out for contact. I am sure that this episode alone didn’t create that, but it sure is a clear example of what probably was a common pattern in my childhood. I’m in distress, so I go to Mommy, but either Mommy can’t deal with the distress for some reason or Daddy says that I am bothering her. I learn that if I ask for help when I really need it, then I’m likely to be rejected which makes me feel even worse inside. All I can do is stand there and hope that Mommy notices and offers to help me. If that doesn’t work, then I go and hide and take care of myself.

Those are the lessons that I learned in childhood: I’m likely to be hurt and rejected if I ask for help- it isn’t safe. If the person is willing to help, they will notice and offer, and if they don’t offer that is a rejection, but it is an easier rejection for me to tolerate. I “should” be able to take care of myself and I am too needy when I can’t. The safest/best thing is for me to do is to go and hide in a corner when I am hurting the most.

They were false lessons, though. They applied to my distorted life as a helpless, abused child who could not understand what was going on, but knew that she couldn’t rely on any support. Thankfully, they don’t apply to my life now and I am slowly learning that they don’t. Ironically, they probably apply least in the part of my life where I am dealing with the abuse, because Mama Bear is mindful of these beliefs and tries to not only not reinforce them, but she also challenges them.

Yesterday, in our session, I struggled to tell her that I was feeling angry with her because of something that happened in the previous session. In retrospect, I wasn’t so much angry as I was extremely distressed because what had happened had caused a disruption in the connection in our relationship. I needed for her to come together with me and work it out, but asking for her to do so was incredibly frightening for me, because parts of me expected for her to become angry and reject me. Not only did she willingly engage with me, she helped me to see that my fears had no basis in reality. First she said, “C. you need to really look at me… Do I look like I am at all angry or upset with you?” I had to admit that I didn’t see any signs of anger. Then after we had talked a bit more, she said, “OK, take another look at me. How do I look like I feel now?” I struggled to come up with an answer, because I wasn’t seeing any strong emotions, so she continued, “I’m feeling much more relaxed than I was before, because we are talking about what is going on between the two of us. I realized after our last session that we had a disconnection and now we are addressing it. That feels good and I am able to relax.”

Huh, she wants the connection, too. She also notices when there is a disruption in the relationship and it also feels uncomfortable to her, albeit in a different way than it feels uncomfortable to me. Attachment isn’t just me attaching to her, it’s the creation of a relationship. It involves both of us. As she said, “We are in this together.”

Humans are social animals and I believe that we are best off when we deal with our traumas (both trauma and Trauma) with the help of others. But it seems to be all too easy to damage our ability to create the connections with others that would allow for such healing. What have your experiences been with the use of connection to others to help to yourself heal?

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Detail of quilt: Fauna Artists: Frances Alford, Kathy York, Vickie Hallmark, Julie John Upshaw and Judy Coates Perez (who did the chameleon) Full quilt can be seen at: http://aquamoonartquilts.blogspot.com/2007/10/3rd-times-charm-fauna-wins-2nd-place-at.html

Detail of quilt: Fauna
Artists: Frances Alford, Kathy York, Vickie Hallmark, Julie John Upshaw and Judy Coates Perez (who did the chameleon)
Full quilt can be seen at: http://aquamoonartquilts.blogspot.com/2007/10/3rd-times-charm-fauna-wins-2nd-place-at.html

Things are very different for me today than they were a week ago. I was in a bad place last Saturday and now I am in a better place than I was before I fell apart last week. I went into my session today and tried to explain to Mama Bear what felt different. I told her that I felt as though things are shifting and adjusting inside and could tell that I needed to be patient with my insides while this was happening. Her question was, “Why is now different? Don’t they deserve for you to be patient with them all of the time?” That took me aback. She is correct. All of me needs for me to be far more patient and compassionate than I normally am towards myself. I deserve to be treated gently and with love and respect. I need to treat myself the way that I hope that I would treat another person who has been through what I have been through.

Very often, I will struggle and struggle over something big and seem to make little or no progress for months, sometimes many months, and then suddenly things will suddenly come together in a way that allows for a huge shift all at once. Sometimes I will have some sense that a shift is coming, but generally I have no clue until I am trying to adjust to it. That is what has happened to me now. Suddenly I am able to look at the whole of what I experienced as a child and say, “Really terrible things happened to me. I am the person that those horrible things happened to and they hurt me badly, but I am also the person who is standing here right now. A strong adult who is dealing with some deep wounds but doing fairly well despite everything. I can be both.” Up until now, I have always had to be one or the other. I either experienced myself as the child who was being hurt or I experienced myself as the adult now. Sometimes I could experience myself in rapid succession as the hurt child and then the adult trying to help soothe the hurt child, but I still needed to think of the abuse as happening to that child part, rather than to me. I knew in my head that it happened to me, but always in a vague, distant way. I had to think of it as having happened to the child that I was or to the young body that grew into the body that I have now. For the last couple of days, things have been different and I can finally accept, “It happened to me. Past tense, happened, but it happened to me.”

I realize that I still am early in the process of making this transition and if directly faced with the emotions of a trauma memory, I think that I would immediately fall back into the habitual ways of dealing with it through dissociation. At the same time, I fully recognize that what I am experiencing right now is something big.

In fact, I see it as an important step on the journey towards integration. So far, the process of integrating is turning out to be something quite different from what I expected for it to be. I’m not doing anything with the goal of integrating in mind; I’m just working towards healing in the ways that feel most important to me and in the order that feels right. Instead, as I heal, I find that the separateness and barriers feel less necessary and they are dissolving bit by bit on their own. I know that I am early in the process and I am taking baby steps as I go, but I suspect that I will continue to experience further changes in the same way.

The mental image that I have is that I had this big house that was all cut up into these tiny rooms that were isolated from each other and the doors were locked. That house is changing over time. In some cases walls are being knocked down between rooms, in others doors are being created or enlarged between rooms. Some rooms didn’t even have any windows to start, so windows are now being added. There now is a common area that is growing as the walls are being knocked down. The common area it isn’t all open though, there still are places where things can be kept out of sight as need be, but there also is relatively free movement within that area. I don’t know how this is going to “look” over time. I may end up still needing to have some rooms that can be closed off from the rest of the house. I may need to just have alcoves. The point is that it is safe for my internal state to evolve now so it best suits the me in the now. I had to keep that house a dark warren of small rooms as a child, because at first my mind couldn’t have survived putting those experiences together and as I got older the only way that I could tolerate dealing with what was happening on my own was to keep the experiences separate. As a young adult, I started to put in doors between the rooms when I started my therapy work. As time went on, I was able to bring in more light and open things up somewhat in the “wing” that deals with my grandfather, but the wing that holds my experiences with my father remained as tightly closed up as I could make it. Now I am finally at the point where things have come together in a way that allows me to do massive renovations.

What a revelation… It really is safe for me to learn how to be the person that I need to be. I don’t have to be a chameleon in order to survive. It is safe for me to discover who I am and then to really be that person. It doesn’t feel safe yet, but I understand that it is safe, and in time it will come to feel safe.

How about you? Have you discovered that you are safe to be/do something that never felt safe before?

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