Posts Tagged ‘family’


My vacation reminded me that not only is going out and living good for its own sake, but it can even help with healing. On the drive to the airport for the trip back home, I realized something that astonished me and made me start to cry in gratitude, because unexpectedly I had been given exactly what I need right now.

You see, before I left, I was one stressed out puppy. I was experiencing a “perfect storm” of dealing with very distressing material in regards to my dad, being convinced that I am on the brink of losing my mother, the pressures of the holiday season, the stress of needing to travel when I really didn’t want to travel, the fact that I was traveling to about 20 miles away from where I lived between the ages of 6 months and 6 years, alarming migraine symptoms that resulted in my having an MRI, and finally I was experiencing brief periods of loss of time, which is very unusual for me and no one knew if they were neurological or dissociative due to all of the stress.

As a result, I was in a bit of a mess when I flew out to the West Coast to visit with my husband’s family. One of the things that I was really worried about was my mother in law asking awkward questions that I just didn’t have the resources to deal with, but right before we left, my husband let her know what topics were out of bounds on this trip. That made all of the difference. I was able to relax and we did eventually talk about about some of those same topics, but it was on my terms, so it was my choice to share. As a result, I experienced her attention as caring, rather than being intrusive. While I have always known that it was meant as caring, her questions in the past have only made me want to run, so this shift was a relief for me.

In fact, given the proper boundaries, being with my husband’s family turned out to be a healing experience, rather than the stressful experience that I had anticipated. What a delightful surprise! One of the things that we did differently this time was to break up the time that we spent with people, and we traveled up the coast, staying with different family members. We spent a lot of time hanging out, doing low key activities, like going to the beach, taking walks, and tide pooling together. New Years Day was spent entirely outdoors with my sister in law, enjoying her company, my husband and daughter, the fantastic weather, and the amazing sea life. Days like that help to heal my soul and they provide a calming, wholesome memory for me to come back to in times of distress.

I loved watching my daughter play with her cousins and aunts and make those connections that I so dearly wish that I had with my own family. It was healing for me to watch her settle into feeling secure and loved in the arms of her extended family. Families don’t have to be like the family that I grew up in. My husband’s family is not perfect, but it is loving and supportive and several family members have made an effort to improve upon what they were raised with, so it isn’t stagnant and stuck in dysfunction. It’s reality. My little family with my husband and daughter isn’t perfect, but hopefully we can provide a good enough environment for my daughter to take what we give to her and improve upon it for the next generation.

We spent a couple of days with the other young family in his extended family- their children are 7, 4, and 4 months. That time probably was the highlight of the trip for me. I saw another family where both of the parents came from backgrounds where they had been badly hurt at some point, and yet they have worked hard to heal that hurt, grow, overcome their limitations, and continually strive to learn to be better partners for each other, parents, and fuller people. Once again, they aren’t perfect, but they are kindred spirits in understanding what it means to struggle over and over, fail, pick yourself up and keep on going. They also manage to have faith that while things are hard, they will find a way to make everything work in the end and they remember to have joy in each day. Such a good reminder to find the joy, no matter how small, even in the midst of the struggle.

Unfortunately, the trip wasn’t without bumps. I received a call on New Years Day from my Dad’s phone and even though I didn’t answer it, I was triggered and ended up in a very bad state the next day. I tried my hardest to get myself out of it, but finally conceded that I couldn’t do it on my own and called on Mama Bear for help. At another point, I had to deal with something intrusive in regards to my dad, but at least I was able to put that away by myself. On the other hand, I learned that the trip didn’t have to be problem free in order to be a good thing for me.

The time that I spent connecting with the various people in my husband’s family was far more important to me than I realized while I was doing it. Reflecting on it, I think that I may have let them in more than I have dared to in the past. Somewhere along the way over the last couple of years, I really have learned how to start to open my heart more.

So what was this realization that I had in that predawn car ride to the airport? That I was leaving feeling like I had been loved by my husband’s family. Really feeling that there are people out there who love me, beyond just the few that I have regular contact with here was profound for me. I am someone who is worth loving. Someone who naturally loves and is loved in return. I don’t have to hide behind walls. It is safe for me to exist. I am not going to be rejected for being me. No matter what happens with my parents, I still have people around me who will love me. I’m not going to end up all alone, if I find and tell my truth.

This current realization doesn’t solve everything, of course, but some greater chunk of me is shifting. Tiny bits of me had been taking it in before, but now this larger part of me has experienced being loved, even in the face of starting to deal with what I most don’t want to deal with. I’m interested to see how it plays out both in my everyday relationships and in therapy.

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girl and cat

Tomorrow (today now, really) is my daughter’s ninth birthday. Despite how tiny our house is, we managed to have a birthday party here. Seven giggling eight year old girls for two hours. I haven’t ever dared to have a party at the house before and I don’t know why I chose to this year, but I did. And I made it work! They had fun, ate good food, and only one girl felt left out (which was quickly fixed when I pointed it out). I’m amazed, really.

Over the last month or two, so many things have been shifting inside, and it seems that I have been able to find my resilience and strength for normal day to day challenges again. And the trauma symptoms have diminished so much- I’m at maybe 30 or 40% of what I was over the summer, sometimes even less.

Over the previous year, there were too many days that I spent in bed or wrapped up in a blanket on the couch, just trying to survive. I felt so guilty about not being as present as I should be for my daughter, even when I was in the same room with her, but I couldn’t manage to get myself fully into 2013. It was a terribly difficult year and as much as I hate what I experienced, I hate even more that I missed so much of this last year with my daughter and I can’t get it back. She is only going to continue growing up and I am aware that my time to hold her close to me is growing short. Even now, she needs to venture out, but at least she still wants to come back and nestle against me each day.

Somehow, it seems that I have managed to do what I needed to do to keep her fairly healthy, so some part of me must have been on duty, even when the rest of me was out of touch. I am grateful that I managed to take care of her, but I wish that I remembered more of what I did. I really wish that I had been capable of having more fun with her.

I can’t change the past, though. All I can do is to work to create a better now, which will hopefully lead to an even better future. So today I ended up with seven eight year olds in my house, running around, making a considerable amount of noise. This is something that a month ago would have caused me to dissociate for sure. In fact, I was over at another house for a play date about a month ago and that is exactly what happened. Today, I got kind of stressed for part of the party, but I was able to stay present, help the girls make bracelets, avert potential hurt feelings, and keep things running smoothly in general. It was exhausting and I took a three hour nap afterwards, but I did it. Most importantly, I gave my daughter what she wanted: a normal, fun birthday party with her friends at home.

Tonight, after she went to bed, I sat in the rocking chair, looking at the balloons bobbing on the living room ceiling. I remembered the sense of anticipation exactly nine years ago, knowing that by the next afternoon I would be holding my daughter in my arms. I had so much hope and fear then and I didn’t really have a clue as to how much joy she would bring, how I would love this little being more fiercely and completely than I had ever loved anyone, and how much heartache and frustration I would feel as I struggled through parenthood.

I am so grateful that I am able to do more of the living again while I am healing. I am particularly grateful, because I want to savor the time that I have with this wonderful, exasperating, loving, challenging, giving child of mine. She’s already nine. She’s no longer a little girl. I want to start to savor my time with her and show her that life can very much be worth living.

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Well, today I totally stunned Mama Bear to the point of her just staring at me speechless for a bit. I’ve done that once or twice recently, but she’s usually pretty unflappable, so this is pretty unusual. I think that it happens when she thought that she had an understanding of a situation, but then I tell her something that reveals to her that it was far worse than she had realized.

Having recognized that I feel the need to convey my needs to my mother, today we are talking about what makes communicating with my mom so difficult for me. It’s easiest for me if I use specific examples, so I talked about my mother’s last visit, almost two years ago, when she came to stay for about a week. Mama Bear and I talked about the patterns of interaction at that time and what seems to be ingrained for my mom and how some things that led me to feel shut out may have come from external causes, since she hasn’t shut me out so clearly in the past. Then Mama Bear asked me to remind her about the content of a conversation I had with my mom while I was driving her back to the airport. It’s about a 2 hour drive and the talk occurred about half way through the drive.

“First, do you mind if I make myself a cup of coffee? With this illness, at this time of the day, my energy always starts to lag.”

“Go ahead. Well, she told me more about her mother and her father, oddities in her father’s family and her half sister who was also a cousin.” (I think that she missed the last bit in the coffee making.)

Mama Bear paused and asked, “I thought that there was something abuse related in what she told you.”

“The most striking thing to me is that her father had a daughter by his niece who is a month younger than my mom.”

“What?!? Your grandfather? Your mother’s father?” “Yes” “The daughter of his brother or sister?” “Yes”

She just stood there speechless, staring at me, with her mouth open.

“Did you tell me this before?”


“Somehow I didn’t get the relationship.” (This isn’t as sloppy as it sounds, because we talked about it in an emergency session via cell phone, while I was sitting in my car. I was due to fly off to California for 2 weeks the next morning and I was terribly dissociative and upset, so less coherent than normal.)

I could see the wheels turning in her head, as she took that information and reevaluated what she knew about my mother and realized that my mom’s family was even more dysfunctional than Mama Bear had realized. “Oh, C, it really is a miracle that you and your parents are on your feet at all.”

Seeing her reaction brought home just how serious this information was. I added, “Of course, my mother didn’t know about her half sister until she was 12 or so when her other cousins told her. She just knew the girl as a cousin. Everyone else in the extended family knew except for her and her brothers.”

“She had to have been steeped in don’t talk messages.” Mama Bear shook her head sadly, “I really don’t know how much she going to be able to tolerate without doing any work of her own.” We both thought about that for a bit. “She told you this without warning on the way to the airport, right?”


“I wonder if at some level she was trying to help by telling you these things.”

I nodded in agreement, because I have wondered the same thing.

“I bet that you were pretty shocked.”

“To say the least.”

“How did you get home?”

“With great difficulty. I called my husband. I e-mailed you from my phone. I IM’d with my close group of friends on facebook. I was able to make an appointment to talk with you that evening. I remember that when we talked, we agreed that there was one good thing that could come out of my mom’s revelations: here was clear proof that my family really was terribly messed up on my mother’s side as well as my father’s and there was no way that ‘everything was in my head.'”

That realization was a turning point for me and it allowed me to start to let go of the harsh denial that I was dealing with. The denial did keep on coming back (it was serving a purpose at the time), but it lost the harshness, because at an important level, I was secure in the understanding that I had proof that it wasn’t all in my mind.

Thinking again about this story seems to be pushing me through another turning point. I’m looking at the information with fresh eyes and considering the impact that these events would have had on my grandparent’s parenting and my mothers environment throughout her childhood. I know bits and pieces of other stories that creep me out and who knows what else is out there? It occurs to me that there probably aren’t just skeletons in the closets of this branch of my family- there probably are entire graveyards. Thankfully, it isn’t my job to figure any of that mess out, but it does help for me to take this background into consideration while I am planning out what to try with my mother. Once again, it’s a reminder that it isn’t all in my head; my mom was born into a situation with secrets, lots of pain, and taboos about talking. I’m not imagining that she has these difficulties and am not creating worries out of thin air. These ways of being are deeply ingrained in her and they are going to make it difficult for her to deal directly with my reality. She quite simply may not be capable of dealing with much of any of it directly, because she has more than 6 decades of training in not tackling painful material and she has no support to help her do anything differently. If she freezes up and can’t come through for me, it won’t be a statement of her not loving me or caring enough about me, it will simply be about her limitations. But it will hurt like hell for me to deal with. The important question will be can we move past that to find something that she can tolerate that will give me at least a bit of what I need in regards to the abuse and allow us to retain some sort of connection? What will be enough for me to get from her, so it won’t just be painful for me? Can I deal with the frustrations that I feel with her limitations and forgive her? I think that so much will depend on what efforts she is willing to make, and I can’t know that until I give it a try.

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My family went on our first family vacation in two years last week. It was much needed and much looked forward to. My husband isn’t much of a travel planner, so I tend to propose an idea to him, he agrees with it, and then I plan the whole thing out. In many ways it’s nice, because it means that everything is to my taste.

When trying to decide what to do for this trip, we knew that we needed to keep the costs down, so it needed to be a place that is within a two day drive. So no trips to Glacier National Park for us, which is the sort of thing that would be our first choice. My daughter and I love the ocean, so I thought that a holiday close to the ocean would be a good thing. Eventually, I hit upon the idea of renting a cottage on an island off the coast of Maine for a week. We would cook for ourselves and do outdoor activities, so we could keep the costs to a reasonable level.

Off we went on our island adventure and all was well on the two day trip there, other than not being able to leave until 8pm on Friday, so not getting to our first stop until 3AM! Saturday evening we made it to the island, found our very pleasant cottage, made the beds, pieced together a dinner and then fell into our beds exhausted.

Early Sunday morning, I woke up to nightmares. I almost never remember my dreams. I’m sure that I have bad dreams all the time trying to process what I am dealing with, but I just don’t remember them. Well, something changed, and Sunday morning set the pattern for the entire week. I woke up to nightmares at some point during every night/early morning last week, except for the final night. It reminded me to be grateful that I normally don’t remember my dreams, because if that was a taste of what is going on when I am doing heavy duty processing, I think that I will leave the dreams to my unconscious mind for that side of the work.

On Sunday morning, I managed to get back to sleep and woke up feeling somewhat better around the same time as my husband did. So we did what most couples would do on a vacation morning while their child is still asleep: we started to cuddle and kiss. At least we did until I suddenly was massively triggered into a child state and feeling terribly trapped.

I continued to feel dissociated during the day, although we did go out into the woods and to the beach and we played a new game as a family, so I still was functional. When I was active and out, I simply felt dissociated, as if part of me was being active with my family and doing the things that I enjoy but that part felt about 10 feet away. The rest of me was wrapped in a cocoon, and I couldn’t even touch the ground or really connect with anyone. Actually, it took me about three days to get to the point where I could even describe how I felt- I was that dissociated.

Much of the time when I was alone, I felt as though I was getting memory type flickers of things. Most of the time when that happened, I was able to not engage with them, although I do remember at one point clearly connecting with something and collapsing, curled up into a ball.

It was a very odd experience: I was doing things that I enjoy very much with my family on this beautiful island off the coast of Maine, but at the same time, internally, I was having a very different experience. The thing was that I was so numbed out and dissociated that I couldn’t even see that maybe I should be concerned about what was going on for the first few days.

Monday morning was a repeat of Sunday. Tuesday morning was a repeat of Sunday and Monday. And I continued to go along in a dissociate state that I couldn’t seem to touch, no matter what grounding technique I used. Finally on Tuesday afternoon, I e-mailed Mama Bear, because by that point even I could see that something was going wrong, although, the thing that I could most clearly see was problematic was my physical relationship with my husband. Thankfully, the woman has good sense and pointed out that I was putting pressure on myself and working from expectations, not from what I actually wanted. Being sexual with my husband because of expectations simply would not work.

Once I took that pressure off of myself, things got somewhat better. I still was dissociated, but enough less so that I could actually figure out some of what I was experiencing. I felt trapped. I knew that I was being triggered by something, but I just couldn’t figure out what. There were things in the bedroom that we were in that made me uncomfortable, but not enough so to have this extreme of a reaction all day long. I had felt fine on the drive up to Maine, so it wasn’t that I had brought it with me. I just couldn’t figure it out, so I gave up on trying to figure it out.

At that point, we were mid way through our week on the island and I resigned myself to the fact that I might continue to feel that way for the rest of the vacation. However, I also kept in mind that I knew that I was not going to stay in that state forever. I wasn’t actually trapped in it, even if I felt trapped right then. The “knowing” me simply had to hold on to the knowledge that the state that I was in would ease at some point, even though the “experiencing” me was afraid that I was stuck in it long term. Panic wouldn’t help me in any way.

I also accepted the fact that I just wasn’t going to have the vacation that I wanted to have. It was frustrating and it wasn’t fair, but accepting it for what it was would make it easier for me to get out of it as much as I could. I might only be able to have 40% of the experience, but that was better than the 25% that I had been getting.

One of the most frustrating things for me was that I realized that extra stimulation increased the levels of dissociation. An 8 year old chattering at you and bouncing around is stimulating. Simply being around my daughter made things worse for me, much of the time. So we would take her out on hikes and walks on the beach and I would drop back and try to focus on little details, so help me ground into the experience. The different colors and textures of moss on a fallen tree. How things reflect in a pond when there is only a breath of wind. The iridescent colors in the mother of pearl on the inside of an abalone shell. Those connections to that moment helped me to take in as much of the experience and be as present as possible.

Unsurprisingly, the memories from the 2nd part of the week are more vivid than the memories from the first part of the week. I never managed to completely ground myself- I was somewhat dissociated the entire week- but I was able to manage the situation well enough that it didn’t completely degenerate into my being a dissociative mess. Instead, I was able to help myself.

And I finally figured out what my trigger was: being on an island. I felt trapped because I was on an island. The morning that we left, I felt better even before we left the island, but within an hour or two of getting to the mainland, I felt as though a huge load had been lifted from my shoulders. It turns out that my husband also felt trapped, but had a much more mild reaction than I did. I’m not sure how much of it was not being able to get off the island easily and how much of it was simply being on a small island. Between the ages of 10 1/2 and 13, I lived on a small island, so that may have been part of the trigger for me. I really don’t know and it isn’t important right now. What I do know is that there was nothing that I could have done short of leaving the island other than just what I did: remind myself that I wasn’t really trapped in the now, and work on grounding and being as much in the present with my loved ones as possible. And repeat over and over and over.

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Artist: Shawn P Quinlan

Artist: Shawn P Quinlan

Wow, it’s amazing what a powerful experience it can be to get some validation.

My parents really made everything look perfect from the outside and I did my best to help them the whole time I lived with them. So I have completely expected that anyone who I tried to talk to from the period from when I was growing up would think I was crazy if I broached the topic of abuse. In fact, it’s something that I still have problems with myself from time to time; “But how could we look so perfect if things actually were so dysfunctional inside? Maybe I am mistaken and they weren’t that dysfunctional.”

So yesterday’s interchange with my friend from 7th grade when she said (to paraphrase), “Actually, I saw something that made me uncomfortable” was a big deal for me. But what she said to me today was even more validating…

Yesterday I said something about not telling many people about the abuse, because of my fears about how they would react and this evening she responded:

As for your fear about how people would react, I can’t blame you at all. If I hadn’t been disturbed by your father tickling you, I probably would have said the same thing you fear others would say–your family is too perfect, how could this be? If you ever get this reaction from someone you tell, please forgive their ignorance. Your parents did quite well with their acting job, unfortunately at your expense.

In essence, she says here, “Yes, your family looked perfect from the outside, but I believe that your dad could have abused you because of how disturbed I was when I saw him tickling you. If I hadn’t seen it, I would have had trouble believing, because the facade was so good.” This is incredibly validating because it covers all of my perceptions. 1) That my family did look perfect from the outside. 2) That people wouldn’t believe me because it looked so perfect. 3) That there was something creepy going on with my dad.

I wouldn’t have guessed that having my perceptions about how perfect my family looked and how people wouldn’t believe me confirmed would be validating, but it is. My perception about the whole picture is on target, even if I’m not sure of just how bad things were with my dad. I’m not paranoid for thinking that no one would believe me. I’m not making up the fact that my family had an impeccable facade that other people actually bought into. And someone else who was there saw with her own eyes an interaction between me and my dad that “disturbed” her at the time and made her fear sexual abuse yesterday when I started to ask vague questions about my saying anything “odd” about my family back when I knew her.

I started to cry when I read what she wrote tonight. Someone who actually knows my family believes me. Someone believes me because of something that she saw, not just because she thinks that I am believable. And this is someone who acknowledges that if she hadn’t seen the tickling, she would have trouble believing me.

It isn’t all just in my head. If someone else saw enough to disturb them, it isn’t all in my head. There really was something tangible there. Maybe it wasn’t the level of abuse that I fear it might have been, but something really was observably disturbing to a 12 year old.

God, it’s nice to know that I’m not completely crazy.

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