Recovery…

One of the most amazing things my counselor did for me when I was visiting him was spend more time talking to me about the difficulties I needed help with rather than trying to force me to accept any form of diagnosis. Rather than use diagnoses as labels and boxes to categorize me, he used them as tools to help him guide me along a path to the life I wanted to live. We talked about the things that mattered, my desire to die but my need to live, my relationships that were falling apart, the anger, the pain, the arguments, the abuse.

Only once in the times that I spent in his office did he ever speak of a diagnosis. Even then, he wasn’t giving it to me as something to accept or own, he was offering a resource, a book about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). He never once said to me, you have PTSD, and you need to learn to live with it. He did, however, offer me information to help me better understand myself and how to overcome the obstacles in my life.

The other time I remember he could have labeled me with a diagnosis was when I returned to him a few years later with trouble sleeping, eating, and coping with another abuse I had long tried to bury and ignore. He advised that he felt medications could help me manage my feelings and get back to a level place. We negotiated, we talked about benefits, we talked about my reluctance to be dependent on medications, and we discussed my concern that taking medications would only mask the things that needed work in my life and make me less driven to do the work. Yet, he never once said, you have Clinical Depression, and you will need to take medications to get better. Instead, he offered me the choice to find my own path through herbal supplements (which is really medicating, but I felt more in control) and therapy.

My counselor also never said, we are going to use CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) to help you learn how to manage the symptoms of your Depression, PTSD, and Anxiety. However, working in the mental health field and better understanding the types of therapy that exist, I can look back and know that is the type of therapy he chose to use. He also never told me, we are going to use autogenics to help you manage your Anxiety. Instead, he offered a script to help me relax (pause my brain) so I could sleep at night.

Recovery isn’t about being labeled with a diagnosis. It’s not even about learning to live with a diagnosis. It is about understanding who you are, the challenges you face, and finding the determination to overcome them. Diagnoses are guides to help professionals pick the right set of tools to guide you through the process of recovery. They can help you make better choices about your recovery by helping you understand how your brain and body function and some of the challenges you are experiencing. However, recovery isn’t about accepting that your life has to be limited or defined by a diagnosis, it’s about accepting the challenge to use those difficulties to make something better of yourself.

Faded memories…

In a previous post, I mentioned how few memories I have from when I was a child. As I pondered the meaning of family over the past week, my attention once again turned to these memories as a way to weigh my feelings against reality. The more I thought over things, the more I realized there was only one truly happy memory of my bio father before the age of six.

I know he worked days, so his time with us was mostly limited to nights, but I don’t even remember him in the time between work and bedtime except on three occasions. One I remember because I was embarrassed that everyone was laughing at something three year old me said. The other, I could only see his legs and shoes because I was a baby and sitting in the floor – not a memory of him in all reality. Take away those, and the only memory I actually have of him that is a good one is when I was standing beside him in his favorite recliner watching football when I was four.

The simple truth is, to me, there were only six years of my life in which I actually remember him being there. As I have written previously, in those memories he was mostly tearing my mother down, overbearing, extremely distant, or punishing me harshly. This means for me, I never really felt like he was my father. I felt a sense of duty because he told me that’s what family is, but in truth, he wasn’t my father just because he put a roof over my head and met the bare necessities for clothing and feeding me.

When talking to my brother last week, it hit home when I told him our “father” hasn’t been a part of my life for 28 years. Suddenly, I realized I am 40, and six years does not qualify someone as a parent, especially when a large portion of that time was punctuated by emotional abuse and neglect, endangerment, and physical abuse. He was a tiny blip in my timeline, one I think is hardly worth continued concern.

I don’t say these things to be harsh, hurtful, or vengeful. I do say these things, however, to be honest, open, and real about where I am in my life. It’s time for me to let go of the things that have held me back, to honor the ones who have supported and loved me by moving forward with my life, and to no longer feel like I should keep secrets and protect people out of some misplaced loyalty to a family that never actually existed.

Letter to my cousin..

**TRIGGER WARNING**

In the past, thought there was no purpose in writing to my abusers. I felt like I would get no closure making contact, that they would not feel shame, guilt, remorse for their actions, and so I kept my silence.  Yet, in the last few weeks, I have come to realize that, for me, the purpose of writing it less about getting my feelings out and more about saying, “That dirty little secret you have, I’m not keeping it anymore.”  It is also about making my abuser aware of the harm their actions have done, and how wrong it is if they are continuing to harm others.

With that in mind, I finally went on Facebook this morning and sent my cousin a message.  Will she see it?  I am not sure, but it’s out there in the world.  Here is what I wrote:

“I have been thinking of this for a long time, and I often decided against it.  Many times, ‘I asked myself, what good would this do?  What positive could possibly come of this?’  Each time, I turned away from the task because the answer was, ‘None.’  Yet in the past weeks, as memories of what you did plague me more each day, I find writing this is necessary.

With each new day comes new perspective, and it is just today that I realize you not only took advantage of my innocence, you groomed me for it. Your discussion of women’s bodies with me, a child who had never even heard these things, much less discussed them, served to open the door for you to use me to serve your sexual desires.  I am disgusted by the thoughts of what you did, of how you groomed and then bullied me into sexual acts with you.  Your actions destroyed every last shred of innocence and dignity I had left.

I am not even certain how many times you used me or what all happened, but I know it was at least twice.  I realize that not all the blame lies on you. My father shares some of the blame for his own actions that led to him trusting me to your care. Your mother also for not supervising you more closely.  Yet, ultimately, no one made you force yourself on me, that decision was on you.  Maybe you were molested yourself.  If you were, I feel for the little girl who was harmed.  Yet, that does not excuse your choice to perpetuate that harm on me too.

In all reality, it is my fear that you may have harmed others that drives me to write this now. I hope and pray every day that I was the only one, that you didn’t force yourself on others, and that you do not continue to do so today.

You need to understand how wrong this is… how much damage you have done to a soul.  My life is forever altered by your actions.  Since you transferred to my school in ninth grade, there has not been a week, sometimes even a day, that has gone by without some terrible reminder of what you did.  That kind of trauma leaves a scar on the memory that never goes away. It cannot be undone. It affects everything, and one’s life ceases to be their own. It took years for me to learn that what you did to me did not damage me, break me, or make me dirty and vile. Yet, no matter how much I heal, how far I come, it will always be there, and it disgusts me to the very core.

You once told me I shouldn’t be so removed from the family, that I should visit more often.  The reality is, I couldn’t even if I wanted to. I learned early in life that family is made up of people who want to harm you, that the people you are born to are not always people who care about your well-being over their own.  I do not visit, and I am not a part of the family because of YOU.  I have been forced to keep this secret to protect the family that did not protect me.

I hope one day you will have the courage to tell your uncle what you did to his daughter when he trusted her into your care.  I hope you understand how you destroyed the lives of many, not just one, with your actions.

I also pray that you seek help for the things you have done.  I do not want anything to do with you, but I do hope that if you have harmed others, you choose to make amends for the pain you have put them through.

I also pray that if you are hurting others, you realize how much pain you are causing by using them to please yourself and you seek help from professionals who assist in the rehabilitation of sexual offenders.

There is no beauty in taking the innocence of a child.

Lessons Learned

**TRIGGER WARNING**

For various reasons, I’ve had a lot of time to think about my healing journey over the last month.  Some of these thoughts, which I am sharing with you now, have been difficult, while others have been empowering.

1) Healing takes time – For most, healing from abuse is a journey.  Although we often wish it could happen overnight, the reality is that just like recovering from severe injuries to the body, healing our hearts and souls is a process that happens over time.

2) Healing starts with one often fearful, but always courageous step – From the moment we choose to free ourselves from the pain of our past, we begin to heal.

3) It is extremely important to make sure children have the vocabulary they need to describe all parts of their bodies. – Talking to your children about body parts is not dirty or nasty (as long as you keep healthy boundaries in the conversation). It’s not shameful. Teaching your children about their body parts is NOT teaching them about sex (although, there is an important time to start that conversation too) or encouraging them to have it.  Instead, it is one step toward empowering them to protect themselves.

I was not taught the words I needed to explain that my grandfather touched and put his finger in my vagina (yes, I said it). Instead, the only words I knew to say were, “He held me, and I didn’t like it.”  As you can see, these statements are very different, and while there is only one way to interpret the first, many adults will interpret the second as something much less harmless.

4) Protecting children from sexual abuse goes beyond talking about body parts. It also means we talk about boundaries, what is ok and not ok for people to say and do.  “It’s not ok for people to touch, take pictures of or talk about your private areas, and it’s also not ok for them to touch, show you pictures of, or talk to you about other people’s private areas.”  This conversation must be age appropriate and should include conversations about consent (it’s not ok for people to touch you anywhere without permission, adolescents need clear understandings of what consent means according to the law, etc.).

5) Children need to be empowered to talk about their experiences.  They need to know there is a safe person to share their experiences with, someone who will take them seriously, not over-react, and who will do everything in their power to make them safe again.

6) Children need to know that no matter who (mom, dad, grandparent, friend, doctor, coach, teacher, pastor, etc.) touched them or talked about their private parts in a manner that was not respectful, they need to tell us, we will listen, and we will take action.

If someone had talked to me about this, I would have known it was ok to express that I was not ok with my cousin talking to me about women’s bodies in a sexual manner. I also would have known I should tell someone she was talking about things she shouldn’t. Instead, my lack of information put her in a position of power over me, which she used to “educate” me about sexual matters.

7) Even after 18 years, there is still an element of the unknown.  There are still moments when I see gaps in memories, and ask myself, “What if there is more?”

8) A time comes when the question, “What if there is more?” is met with, “I am strong enough to handle it,” rather than the dismissive refusal, “I don’t want to know!”  This does not mean we dwell on the question, nurture it, or push ourselves to explore the gaps. Rather we know if it does come, we will be able to get through it.

9) There is a time when the memories fade into the background of our experience. In the beginning, the memories are intrusive, the flashbacks inescapable, and every time we relive the abuse, we experience the pain all over again.When the mind decides it is time to start dealing with the past, it will constantly feed these memories to us until we have no choice but to do something about it.  As we begin the process, the mind will continue to push us to think about these things until it is satisfied that we are purposefully processing our experiences.  Once we take charge of the healing process, the mind then relaxes and says, “You got this.”  Eventually, reliving the past becomes a controlled choice, a moment where we choose to reflect on a specific event, explore it without experiencing an influx of intrusive feelings, and bring ourselves back to the present safely.

Please remember, even though the journey can be painful, it is worth it.  I wouldn’t trade all the struggles for the life I had before.  I am stronger today. I will soar, I will fly, and I will enjoy the freedom that comes with letting go of the past.

Just When I Thought…

There come moments in life when I think that I am finished reliving the past, that my memories of those times cannot bring more pain.  Yet something always surprises me.  Sometimes even the tiniest thing that I had forgotten or part of a memory that had been less painful suddenly comes to the surface.  It’s like a new revelation, and it once again brings into focus everything that occurred – reminding me of the loneliness, sadness, and hopelessness that I felt.

Earlier today, as my mind wandered over various situations young people face, one stood out to me: it was the stories of foster youth who often leave their homes with nothing more than a trash bag to hold their entire world. I’ve thought of this particular issue more than once, yet this time it brought into focus my own experiences.  I remembered how my father & step-mother gave me a trash bag to fill with my own possessions on the day I left to live with my mom.  There have been so many sad memories from that day that this one in particular has always seemed rather benign.  Yet as it came to me, it brought up many new thoughts and feelings.  I can remember trying to figure out what I could take with me and what I would have to leave.  I remember feeling sad as I put the bag into my mother’s car, thinking of the things I loved that I was leaving behind – my yellow kitty puff-a-lump, my beloved books, and the toy chest my mom made for me from an aquarium were just a few.

More than the memories, this trash bag boils down every core feeling about my life up to that point.  My father was so bent on not seeing my mother benefit from anything he did that he wouldn’t even allow his own child a bag of her own.  We had luggage, we used it all the time.  Yet me taking it to my mom’s meant she might benefit in some way, and that wasn’t happening.  It also reminds me how self-centered my father’s world was.  If I would not stay in his house, I would not receive anything from him – something he made even more clear with a conversation about college and my future wedding.  The final thing the memory brought back to me was how completely alone I felt.  My parents did not help me fill the bag.  They left me all by myself to sort through and gather my belongings.  I realize they felt hurt, but one would think that if a parent truly loved their child, they would spend every single minute they could with their child on the last day she would be in their home.

I’m sure my parents did all of this out of a reaction to their own pain, a pain that was self-inflicted, but pain none-the-less.  Yet, it stands out as a distinct reminder of how their feelings always came before those of their children.  Their wants, their needs, their lives; nothing else mattered – we didn’t matter.  The pain of this new perspective will fade with time, as it always does.  However, the scar will not go away.  It will always be a reminder of how alone I truly was, and how thankful I am that I left their home.

 

Still So Much to Learn

Sometimes I feel like I am a bit behind the rest of the world when it comes to communicating effectively.  I often forget that not everyone sees the world the way I do, and when I rely on what I have been taught about dealing with conflict, I can really confuse the people around me.

The two biggest things challenges that have been brought to my attention as of late are 1) the belief that everything that goes wrong is about me and 2) my reaction to conflict is to remove the perceived problem, which in most cases I feel is me.

In the midst of conflict, I somehow revert to that child that was taught she was the problem in every situation.  If someone is angry and upset, I must have done something wrong.  Even if I am right, and someone is actually upset with me, I have trouble thinking beyond myself and asking, “Is my part really this big, or is there something else going on?” I forget that there are so many other things going on in the lives of others, and sometimes people are just venting to me, not really as angry at me as I perceive.

When I do feel I am the problem, once again, I rely on the old lessons and tend to believe that if I just give them space…if I go away for a bit, everything will be ok again.  What I fail to understand is that not everyone is really that angry at me…not everyone needs me to disappear.  When I go away, most people feel I am walking out, abandoning them, running away from the problem, or all of the above.  I never really realized that people felt this way, and it’s been a real eye opener to hear others say to me that they feel I am acting differently toward them, when in fact I am just giving them space.

I am going to have to really work on finding ways to snap myself out of the “it’s always my fault” mentality in the midst of conflict.  I am not really sure where to start with this, but I am guessing it’s much like having a flashback, I just need to find ways to ground myself better. I do believe, however, that if I ask if someone needs space rather than just assuming they do and giving it, I can resolve my other problem quite easily.

There is still so much to learn…