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Posts Tagged ‘touch’

 

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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Leah Day Shadow Self- Goddess series

Leah Day
Shadow Self- Goddess series

I had a profound experience today and parts of me inside are still taking it in.

I’m not sure whether I mentioned it, but I had a very nasty fall almost two weeks ago and I have been in pain ever since. As you can tell from my most recent post, things have been challenging for me emotionally, as well. As a result, my back and shoulders became even more of a mass of tension and discomfort than is normal for me. When it got to the point where not only my hip was interfering with my ability to sleep, but my back was as well, I knew that I needed to take action to get some relief.

I am taking a break from the massage therapist that I have worked with since I was pregnant with my daughter. (That makes it sound like I get massages all the time, when 2 or 3 a year is good for me, but the point is that we have a long term, previously very trusting relationship.) My dad inserted himself into the relationship and bought a package of 6 massages for my birthday last summer. My massages with her have turned into an exercise in not getting triggered, unfortunately. She did nothing wrong at all; the problem simply is that my dad is now associated with massage and her. I hope to eventually fix that, but I’m not there yet.

Anyways, that meant that I wasn’t able to turn to her for help. Our local food coop has a massage station set up at certain hours, where you pay a dollar a minute and pay for however many minutes of chair massage you want (or can afford.) Mama Bear had talked about the massage therapist who runs the program in glowing terms, and according to the on line schedule he was on duty this afternoon, so I decided to go and see if he could help me.

Well, not only is J. a gifted massage therapist and he helped me to get considerable relief from the physical pain that I have been experiencing, but the experience was important for me on another level.

One of the things that I have learned about massage is that it is most helpful for me if I try to receive it in as mindful of a state of mind as possible. About 1/2 way through the massage, I became aware of the fact that I was not only experiencing the massage on a physical level, but it also was affecting me deeply inside. This stranger whom I had only met 15 minutes before was treating me with kindness and with a real desire to help me feel better. I hadn’t considered before how much can be communicated through touch. Most of the massages that I have had with people other than the woman I normally work with (A.) have been more or less helpful and the therapists have ranged from friendly and clearly desiring to help to business like. Never before have I experienced such an intense experience of presence. Even with A., she is there and I can feel the caring and nurturing coming off of her, but it is quieter.

Fortunately, I wasn’t in a thinking state, just an experiencing state, otherwise I probably would have started to doubt what I was experiencing. Instead, I realized just how much my soul needed to experience that kindness. While accepting the physical impact of being abused has been an important part of my recent healing, it also left me in a state where I was parched for physical kindness. So being able to sit there, in a light trance state, soaking in the physical kindness and care that was being given was tremendously healing for me. Parts of me inside were able to absorb the experience of having someone use touch in a healing way. Use touch in a healing way– the thought makes me cry in grief at what was and hope at what can be.

And this was a stranger. As I absorbed the sense of kindness coming off of this young man, there was a sense of wonder inside that there really are people out there who treat other people well. There are men out there who act out of a desire to help others. Not just the few men that I know and have tested out over time, but men that I have never met. There really are men out there who don’t secretly want to hurt others. The world really is a less dangerous place than my insides believe it to be. It’s like the difference between the world being a war zone and the world having some safety in it.

Right now my insides feel the way that they do sometimes after a breakthrough with Mama Bear. There is a sense of wonder and hope that things actually might be better than I thought they were- almost a giddiness.

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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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The last couple of days have been challenging days for me, and I have been trying to concentrate on things that are soothing and calming or even just plain distracting.  Here is a list for me:

–          cuddling with my daughter

–          getting a hug from my husband

–          reading a good book

–          taking a walk (preferably by the river with my dog)

–          petting my dog

–          grooming my dog

–          petting one of my cats

–          watching a movie (preferably with my husband and/or daughter)

–          listening to my daughter read

–          reading to my daughter

–          sitting side by side with my daughter and reading together

–          taking a hot shower

–          working with my daughter on an art project

–          dreaming about a series of experiments that I might do with cloth, paper, and color

–          touching something tactily pleasing

–          talking to a friend, especially about something that I love

–          immersing myself in gorgeous nature photography, particularly of places I have known and loved

It’s interesting for me to note that these are mostly touch or other contact oriented.  I guess that these days, when I am feeling distressed, it is contact with others that I want most of all.  Actually, I don’t just want it, it is essential to my remembering when I am and that I am no longer alone.

What do other people do?  Do your lists also reveal something about what you most need at this point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Human beings are hard wired to need touch.  In fact, the need is so basic that infants will “fail to thrive” if they are not touched and held in a caring way, even if otherwise they have all of their needs met.

Over the last seven years, I have watched my daughter soak up all of the physical contact that her father and I have given to her and I see just how core touch continues to be to her well being and connection to us, her primary caregivers.  I never had any idea just how many different messages a hug can convey, without needing to say a single word.  Of course, “I love you” and “You are the most wonderful daughter in the world” are givens, as is “You got hurt and I want to comfort you.”  But a high five is a physical way of saying, “Good job!”  Brushing her hair in the morning because she prefers that I do it says, “I value our contact so much that I am willing to stop by bustling about, in order to play with your beautiful hair.”  Holding her while she cries bitter tears of frustration after fighting with a friend says, “I’m here for you” as well as helping her to learn emotional self regulation.  Holding her hand while we cross the street says, “Your safety is very important to me.”  I could go on and on, but the point is that touch can and should be used to help a child develop, create connections, and flourish.  I believe that touch is essential to forming a healthy attachment with caregivers, which then provides a solid foundation to build all later relationships upon.

When a child is sexually abused, especially by someone who should instead be providing the safe, nurturing type of touch, it turns everything around.  Touch becomes dangerous, even terrifying, a source of shame, and all too often painful.

I cannot state strongly enough how angry it makes me that something that is so central to our human nature, something that can be such a powerful source of good for a child, is perverted and turned against children instead.  Because we so need touch and we are programmed to use it to help us learn our value, it seems that we are almost defenseless when it is used against us while we are young and so we learn the opposite of what we were meant to learn.  “I cannot trust anyone.”  “I will be harmed by those who are supposed to love and protect me.”  “I am worthless.”  “I am bad.”  “I was made to be used.”  “I will never be safe.”

And those messages are then carried with us into adulthood and instead of a solid foundation, we are trying to build our relationships on quicksand.

Touch does not diminish in importance as we grow into adults; we still use it to cement our relationships.  We share hugs or handshakes with friends.  We are intimate with our partners in ways that we are with no one else, because it is a special type of relationship.  We go on to use it to help to raise our children.  Or at least that is the way that it is supposed to work, but when the meaning of touch has been perverted, it can no longer function in the manner that it was designed to.

I know that for me, there were many years when I “knew” that touch was supposed to be all of those good things, but the young parts inside of me would instantly be triggered into re-experiencing the terror of being abused when I was touched.  I wanted to be able to connect via a hug or snuggle or even touch on the arm and not have it turn into something terrible.  But part of the problem was that with every time that I was triggered, I strengthened the connection between touch and terror, until it built to a point where I didn’t want to be touched at all, even by the most trustworthy people in my life.  I would have been so grateful if I had been told that I would never have to touch anyone again, at the worst point.  And so it becomes a catch 22 situation: I try to touch, I get triggered, and it makes it more likely that I will be triggered again next time.  But if I never try to touch, then I can’t learn that anything good will come of touch and I will continue to be triggered.  Believe me, this is one of those things that you can talk about in therapy until you are blue in the face, and it won’t change much of anything, except that you now have a better understanding of why you are so messed up about touch.

So how does a person escape this trap?  Very, very carefully and all too often heartbreakingly slowly.  Some people use EMDR.  I tried the technique and had mixed results, although thinking back, I believe that my experience of touch began to transition around the time I gave EMDR a try.  Maybe it was the EMDR, maybe it was just stepping back and taking as much pressure off of myself in regards to touch as was possible, but something allowed me to start to engage in touch in the smallest ways.  And from there, it was a matter of making sure that I didn’t start to push myself too fast and trigger myself into terror states, but bit by bit I added elements of touch that were just a small step more challenging than the last.

I had to ask for an immense amount of patience from my husband and will always be grateful that he was both willing and able to stick with me through all of this.  And then as I experienced more and more success and connection via touch with the people I loved, I developed more confidence to take on more challenging types of touch.

It took me many, many years to get here, but I am happy to say that I went from being a very frightened young woman who was triggered into flashbacks when her husband simply touched her arm, to someone who revels in touch.  Yes, on rare occasions touch will still be triggering for me, after all I can never undo the fact that I was abused.  Despite this, I believe that I have finally been able to heal this part of me to the point where I actually am essentially who I was meant to be, if the abuse had never happened.  Because touch is so meaningful for me, I am not someone to touch others or allow myself to be touched casually, but that is due to my choice, it is not a restriction based on fear.  And with the people I most care for, it is now a source of comfort, nurturing, and even joy.  With my husband and daughter, I almost can’t get enough of it.  These days, I would feel profoundly deprived if the ability to touch was somehow taken from me.

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