Posted by: speakoutservices | April 23, 2011

Re-Claiming A Lost Childhood

The bumper sticker said, “It’s Never too Late to Have a Happy Childhood”, and I never wanted to crash into a car so badly in my life.  Could the driver of that car have any idea of the childhood I needlessly lost?  Did she think about the 4-year-old becoming the sex object of her father as she plastered her sign on the back of a Chevy?  

I was indignant and grieving the happy childhood that was gone forever.  It WAS too late for me to be an innocent little girl with a mind and body that was her own.  My childhood was over and I missed out on the “happy” part.  Period.  End of story.

Or so I thought at the time…

Once the grief and the heartache were expressed and healed, I came to understand something miraculous.  The little girl lives on in the heart and soul of the woman.  I am not only a 47-year-old – I am all ages from newborn to middle age that co-exist in the body that hurts a little (ok, alot) more when I get out of bed!  Now these “inside” children have found the parent they needed and deserved from the start, and that parent is me.

Being a parent to wounded children means that you have to be gentle with them and speak softly.  You have to give them teddy bears and blankets and help them feel safe.  You have to tell them they are precious and valuable, and not at fault for the bad things that have happened.  You have to let them draw pictures so they can tell their story and be believed.  I did all of these things with me.

The adult body gripped stuffed animals, hid under blankets, drew pictures, and engaged in dialog with the inside children.  The adult would write with the dominant hand, and the children would write back in crooked letters with the non-dominant hand.  The adult learned about their secrets and fears long buried deep in their minds.  They had been waiting all this time to find a friend to tell. 

The children in my heart are also like all other children.  They long to play outside, paint pictures, read stories, be listened to, and comforted when they are scared. They are especially fond of my own two beautiful birth children, and they have great fun when we are all together.  Yes, they ARE having a happy childhood- in an achy body! 

The bummer sticker spoke the truth after all.

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Posted by: speakoutservices | April 18, 2011

Being Seen as More: Becoming Holy

My survivor friends will never forget the disbelieving look on my face:

“You actually want me to talk to a male minister?” 

We were all in a therapy group for survivors of incest, and at this time in my recovery, I saw God, men and organized religion as carriers of a plague to be avoided at all costs.  Yet my friends were getting spiritual counseling from this most perplexing Methodist source.  They came back raving, enlightened, and taunting me to have a go myself.  Finally, I agreed just to get them off of my back.

I felt like there was a metal rod up my spine as I stiffly walked into a church.  I then shook hands with a plump, balding, middle-aged man who looked every bit the part of the Midwest Bible Belt.  What could he possibly offer me?  I told him I was cajoled into this session by my friends, and I was pretty sure this was not going to help. 

There, I had smugly put him in his place.  Now to get this over with…

But rather than stoically staring at this guy, a feeling of safety and comfort melted the wall I threw around me.  I told him details of my abuse and how I felt deeply different from everyone else.  Through tears, I said that when I looked out the window on a sunny day, I see more than just the beauty of the flowers and grass.  I have felt the true depth of the ugliness that hides in the shadows.  I can never really enjoy a nice day, not like everyone else.  I simply know too much.

He listened intently through my story, and then his eyes opened and he looked awe-struck.  It was as if he suddenly saw some miraculous vision.  Then he said the words that changed my life:

“I feel like I am in the presence of something Holy.”

I sat in silence, catching my breath while time stopped.  Did he just call me Holy?

Never, ever in my life did anyone look at me with a sense of amazement and suggest that I was a being of Holiness.  I was always seen as “less than” until that moment when someone saw me as more.  My minister friend told me that some people come to this world on a mission to cast light into these dark shadows, and we must know the shadow so we can teach others. 

On that day, I became Holy.  I now understand this to be my true nature (and yours too!)  I will be forever grateful for the moment I stepped out of my comfort zone and found help in a most unlikely place.

I believe I was the one who was truly in the presence of something Holy.

P.S. – I recently gave a speech encouraging others to see more when they encounter people with special needs.  The link to my speech “The Flip” is below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nwi1PxcskI

Posted by: speakoutservices | April 10, 2011

Finding Peace After Incest

Peace.  Isn’t that what all survivors crave?  The day when the flashbacks end, the depression lifts, and the anger subsides – the day when you can be “normal” again. 

At the beginning of my recovery, I thought that if I just worked hard enough to purge every memory, cry every tear, and scream every injustice, this would bring me to a place of incest being “over”.  I would “do” trauma recovery, come out victorious, and life would be a Disney-flick with the “happily ever after” tag on the end.

After five years and mounting shame wondering, “Why aren’t I over this yet?” I began to see peace as a gradual reduction of annoying symptoms and a greater sense of courage emerging.  I would celebrate a week without a depression bout, mustering the courage to confront my offenders, or landing a job that was “healthy” and kept me out of a victim role.

Twenty-five years later, I have finally grasped my real peace as a survivor:

Real peace is accepting that trauma has forever changed you, your perceptions of the world, and your feelings about those who directly or indirectly injured you.  You can certainly heal, but you can never “undo” it.  Trauma is woven into the fabric.

Real peace is coming to resolution with those who caused you pain so that they no longer cause chaos by living rent free in your head.  You no longer live in bitterness, fear, or crave revenge.  You can hold the good moments and bad in the same space.

Real peace is feeling and expressing emotions as they surface, and knowing that life will always be a combination of pleasure and pain.  You develop confidence that you can get through any problem and thoroughly submerge yourself in every bit of delight.

Real peace is continuously employing strategies for the times that life will throw you a triggering curve ball, such as when a new daughter reminds you of your innocence lost, your perpetrator dies, or a sibling finally remembers and gives you validation.

Real peace is transforming the negative experience into positive actions that heal others.

Real peace (here is the late-stage grand prize) is watching so much good evolve from uplifting others that you no longer carry any regrets about your past, and in fact, begin to celebrate the strength of your character brought about by facing adversity.

I never dreamed I could write these words and actually believe them.  Hang on…peace awaits.

Posted by: speakoutservices | March 31, 2011

Our Feelings About Offenders: Lessons from Star Wars

Luke desperately tries to drag an ailing Darth Vader from the crumbling ship.  He knows he will never make it in time, so he grants his machine-made father one last wish – to see him with his own eyes.  Luke takes off the black shield and gets a glimpse of the human face he always knew was in there.  The loving man corrupted by the power of the dark side is finally freed from his prison of evil.  Father and son share a brief but timeless gaze before Vader takes his last breath.

I whip out my tissues and have a good cry.  This scene gets me every time, because my dad was Darth Vader too.

Like Anakin Skywalker, he had the capacity for great good and loving moments.   He was the battle hero who rescued me from algebra by re-teaching math concepts I could not grasp in class.  He was the patient one who sat at the kitchen table for hours gluing my model airplane together and placing the delicate decals in just the right position.  My Jedi father was a brilliant mechanical engineer who would have made certain improvements to his light saber, because he would have recognized an obvious design flaw!

And like the tragic elder Skywalker, my father was consumed by fear and anger so powerful that he would hurt the very people he loved the most.  When my father donned the blackness of the sex offender, I was as terrified as Luke during his training with Yoda.  I was also blessed to have my own Jedi Masters who gave me the strength and training to conquer my fear of eventually confronting Vader.

But within this epic saga lies the ultimate controversial question: 

When you do bad things, does that make you a bad person?

Despite the fact that Darth Vader murdered the inhabitants of an entire planet, Luke saw the core of goodness.  Likewise, I can still see my father as a decent man under the cloak of darkness.  This neither excuses what he did nor does it imply that I agree with it – it simply means that I accept the existence of good and bad together.  The bad does not automatically extinguish the good, and the good does not make the bad any less awful.

Darth Vader may have been able to find a peaceful ending because someone was able to see his humanity under the machinery.  Luke helped him see that he was still loveable.  Can we hate bad behavior and still love the human being who committed it?  Would offenders have greater hope in recovery if we could find a heart like Luke Skywalker?

Posted by: speakoutservices | March 26, 2011

The Stigma of Speaking Out: Working to Lift the Fog

I can feel the energy change immediately, without fail.

I have just told my group of workshop participants that this child abuse recognition training will be unique because I will share elements of my experience as an incest survivor.  E. F. Hutton has nothing on me, because I can quiet an audience in a split second with that sentence.  Those who are snacking stop chewing, those who are talking stop mid-sentence, and those who have active thumbs even stop texting.  It is as if a fog has penetrated the room and frozen everyone in that second.  I can read minds at that moment too, and they are all thinking:  “Did she just say incest out loud?”

Despite the many gains we have made as a society, there is still a taboo and the associated element of shock when someone says “incest” in public – let alone opens a workshop with that bomb.  After years of doing this work, I have found that there will be three distinct reactions towards me.  The largest group of people are the “Nervous Smilers”  who will grin at me politely during break, make nervous conversation about the weather, and try hard to figure out just how to be comfortable with me after my disclosure.  The next significant bunch are the “Relieved Survivors” who have been in my same shoes, rush to me with their story, and seem to have a sense of relief that they also have permission to talk.  Lastly, the “Run Like Hellers” are a scant few who are so uncomfortable (or maybe looking at their own issues for the first time) that they will tear off in the other direction to avoid me entirely.

I have developed a thick skin for being shunned simply because I am willing to speak publicly about a victimization that was never my fault.  I doubt people would run or be the slightest bit uncomfortable if I said someone took off with my flat screen TV.  But when the attempted theft involves sexuality, the insidious fog sets in.

And the only cure I know for fog is sunshine. 

My incest story will burn relentlessly to all who will hear it.  The survivors need permission to speak, the smilers need to drop their nervous fears, and the runners need to breathe and stay put.  Incest will only become a comfortable topic if we are not afraid to speak it, and children will only be saved if they live in a society that can stop squirming and see through the mist of taboo.

Posted by: speakoutservices | March 19, 2011

The Stigma of Diagnosis: How About Medals Instead of Labels?

I started writing this at 2am.  This is when I do some of my best work.  I had a therapist tell me this is probably because I am just “a little” bi-polar (the popular disorder of the new millennium).  Back in the 80’s, I was happily “co-dependent”, the 90’s ushered in “depression”, followed by a brief interlude as “ADD”.  Now that I am middle-aged, I will toss “hormonal” into my salad bowl of labels.  Forget PMS, I have always had fabulous excuses to be bitchy everyday of the month 🙂

Labels, labels, labels…such an unnecessary mark for someone who has already lived through so much.  I carried a significant fear that people would not believe me and think I was “crazy” once I disclosed the incest from my father.  And sure enough, the little pink paper I carried home from the therapist’s office simply confirmed this fear with a handy diagnosis ending in the word “disorder” with a nice little numeric code to make it official.  The way I see it, the only tag I should have is the Medal of Honor for my survival skills.  Now perhaps those skills did include dissociative states, emotional upheaval, and all the other normal reactions associated with trauma.  But insurance doesn’t like to pay for normal reactions, so the system continues to “disorder” the very people who need reassured of their sanity the most.

However, I was lucky, because my therapists downplayed this as something they had to do to get paid.  Thankfully, they never believed I was crazy, and therefore, neither did I.  But others are not so fortunate. 

I wish I had a dime for every time over the past 20 years I have heard helping professionals throw around labels without a second thought.  “Oh, don’t expect much from this kid, he’s just ADD… or ODD…or SED…”   There is a wise, resilient, and capable person buried beneath the unfortunate expectation of disorder.  This is the truth that is lost.  And this is the truth that survivors must embrace to heal.

Let’s imagine a world where every survivor hears this truth:

“You are simply amazing.  You have had the courage and fortitude to make it out of relentless attacks to your body, mind and spirit.  You are a role model for perseverance and resilience.  It is a great honor to learn from you.”   The survivor is awarded with a small velvet box with a medal etched with the words “Honored Survivor”.  Throw in a podium, the National Anthem, and a little pink paper from the President to make it official.

Can you begin to imagine the healing potential if our labels turned into medals?

Posted by: speakoutservices | March 9, 2011

Towards a New Definition of Stigma

Webster’s defines stigma as “a mark or token of infamy, disgrace, or reproach” or “a mark indicative of a history of disease or abnormality.”  As a recovering survivor of sexual abuse, I define stigma I experience from society as “a false identification where strength is misperceived as weakness.”

Sadly, Webster’s definition of stigma seems to be the one that has taken root in our society.  While modern times and education have greatly improved the perception of the abused, there is still largely the false belief that survivors are unstable, “crazy”, and incapable of making a rebound from their circumstances.  This is far from the truth.  Survivors are wise, resilient, resourceful, courageous and inspiring – just to name a few.  I am a strong advocate for helping society see that we must begin to approach survivors with a sense of reverence instead of irrelevance.  Survivors of trauma have a lot to teach the world about strength and compassion if they can be given equal footing to do so.

As we begin to re-define stigma as a society, it can only assist the survivor to re-define stigma for her/himself.  Many survivors were manipulated by their offenders to believe that they were at fault or somehow to blame for their own victimization.  They carry the shame of the offender and often have difficulty in placing the responsibility back where it belongs – solely on the offender.  What allows me to speak out publicly about my abuse, and to share details of my life with unabashed openness, is that I have re-defined stigma to mean “a false identification of myself as being bad or shameful.”  I have let go of the shame of abuse 100%.  In several powerful therapy sessions, I gave it back to my offender and vowed to never let it reside in me again.  Therefore, my shame-free life has become a great teaching tool to save lives through education and empowerment, and I derive great joy from my work. 

In the next several blogs, I will share more of my experiences with stigma, including the unintentional, but powerful badge of incompetence derived from diagnostic labels.  There is nothing more frustrating than to have a perfectly normal reaction to trauma which leads to the claim that you are “disordered”.  How is this helpful to a recovery process?   My quest is to re-define stigma where all people look past the illusion of victimization to see the creative and amazing survivor within.

Posted by: speakoutservices | February 22, 2011

“The King’s Speech”: A Lesson in Finding Your Voice

Last night, I did my duty to protect my teenage son’s reputation by not being seen with him, so I slipped into another movie theatre to watch “The King’s Speech”.  I was captivated every second by this powerful, realistic film about King George VI and his determination to overcome stuttering and help his countrymen through the devastations of WWII.

The king’s “mechanical” problem of stuttering was deeply related to his anxieties stemming from neglect, abandonment, and the burden of royal expectations.  He finally began to recognize these underlying factors with the help of a “commoner” speech therapist who was unafraid to treat a royal like any other man on the street.  In the most powerful scene (spoiler warning), the therapist intentionally sits down on a royal throne in West Minister Abbey which had never before felt the rump of an average bloke.   This infuriated King George VI who began screaming and yelling in a completely fluent manner, suddenly realizing he had finally found his voice.  “The King’s Speech” was filled with poignant moments as the roles of royal and commoner methodically melted down into a friendship based on equality.

After emerging from my movie, I thought about all the ways in which abuse survivors lose their voice.  Like the king, sometimes it is the mechanical loss of voice as the pain of the mind plays out in the body.  Other times, it is the burden of silence about the abuse that may be carried for years or a lifetime.  Then there are the insidious ways that we lose our say through the loss of assertiveness, the blurring of boundaries, the repeating of abusive relationships, and the low self-worth that keeps our full potential at bay.  Finding our “voice” is, in essence, finding our power and brilliance as the people we were destined to be before abuse muted our aspirations.  In “The King’s Speech”,  the king found a way out of stuttering only after he found a friend to share his burdens and the confidence to rule.

The courage to face a painful past begins by trusting another human being.  Likewise, that trusted other must have compassion, empathy, and the ability to see the true glory buried in a  frightened exterior.  How often science gets stuck picking apart the latest, greatest method for performing therapy, when it is all very simple.  It wasn’t tricks and techniques helping the king find his voice, it was the art of friendship.

Posted by: speakoutservices | February 12, 2011

Finding Love After Sexual Abuse

“How do I know when someone loves me?”

This was the question posed to me while I was guest speaking to a group of sexual abuse survivors.  The quandry of finding love after sexual abuse quickly gained the rapt attention of every woman, and I felt the silence hang in the air awaiting my answer.

“Well, I am not sure I have figured it out, but I think it is when someone cares for you enough to sometimes put your needs above his or her own.”  Some heads nodded in agreement, and other faces looked puzzled.  A few of those confused faces may never have encountered anyone who put them first.  My answer was as foreign as an unrecognizable language.

Luckily, I learned about love after sexual abuse from a man who put me first more times than I could reciprocate in 26 years.  When we married in 1984, we had no idea that the incest memories coming would tear at our foundation, require thousands of dollars in therapy, and be our constant enemy to intimacy.  We learned by trial and error.

If I were to sum up the “key” to finding love after sexual abuse, it would be the slow process of believing I am loveable, allowing love to enter my being, and being able to offer it back.  I envision it like a “love  processing plant” – it comes in, rejuvenates, and the extra comes back out.  My processing plant routinely breaks down at all three stages.  Love in my young life meant being undeserving of protection, being used for another’s gain, and being cautious about all my other encounters.

Luckily, My husband can fix (and maintain) about anything.  Not only does he do the “big” things like go to therapy sessions and read the books,  but he also does small things everyday.  He puts air in my tires and blankets in the car during the winter.  He pulls out the extra cash to keep my dreams alive or to get more food for the pet rabbit coming under his charge when the kids forget.  He stops everything when my computer throws a fit or when I can’t remember how to program the DVR.   He lives with the heaps and piles of papers that my disorganized brain will forever be unable to order.  And he does this during the times when I have little in my processing plant to give back.

I have found love after sexual abuse, because I was blessed to marry a repairman who could put me first and show me another way.

Posted by: speakoutservices | February 5, 2011

Vaccine-Autism Link: The Need for Common Ground

In an interview released today by CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta asked Bill Gates questions about his foundation’s efforts to vaccinate all the children of the world.  I have profound gratitude that someone with exceptional wealth has chosen to spend his money for the betterment of the world’s children.  Yet during this interview, Mr. Gates also responded that it is an “absolute lie” based on research that there is any vaccine-autism link. 

But thousands of parents with autistic children are asking to be heard that they believe their children’s lives took a downward spiral into the disability as a result of vaccinations.

I do not profess to understand the vaccine-autism link in its full debate or depth of research.  However, I have recently spent time working with autistic children of varying degrees.  If I could magically pick one disability to eliminate, it would be the life-robbing vacuum of autism.  In its most severe form, I have seen children whose minds run in constant obsessions, whose ability to socialize is lost, and whose personality seems “trapped” within them like a great mystery I wish I had the power to unlock.

I do profess great expertise in the area of surviving when others tell you that your own truth is meaningless.  I have been told my abuse memories are false and that therapeutic techniques that worked for me were not validated by research.  Once I suggested to a co-worker that our at-risk youth needed a place to vent their anger, such a recreation center with exercise equipment and a punching bag.  I was told research suggested that this just made kids more angry, and it was not a good idea.  It is a good thing nobody told me this during the years caring therapists supported me while I punched pillows mats in their offices – freeing me from consuming rage. 

I do not suggest that “my way” of healing be applied to everyone, but I do ask that my opinions about what works be given serious consideration and respect.  Far too often, I feel unheard. 

I would like to see the day come when those who do research and those who have lived and breathed their subject matter can come together for finding common ground and promoting meaningful dialog.  I think the words, “an absolute lie” may have been too harsh for the parents who feel that their realities have been shoved aside.  Their children desperately need answers and the ability of adults to work together to solve the puzzle of a possible vaccine-autism link.

To read more of the CNN article:  

http://edition.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/02/03/gupta.gates.vaccines.world.health/

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