I don’t believe childhood abuse survivors truly know what they are getting into when they first begin therapy, whatever our age, however long since the abuse occurred. Perhaps I am wrong and this is projection of my own struggles as I have navigated this road; but I really don’t think so.
While we all have our own specific nuances regarding our abuses, we all share much of the same confusion and despair. We all tend to react to stresses similarly, to believe the same negative things about ourselves; and therefore I believe with mild variation – recovery through therapy will affect us all similarly as well.
That is what I am writing this all down.
If you are anything like me, surviving childhood sexual abuse is more complicated than simply dealing the act of sexual attack on our innocent bodies. We survivors also deal with the violent attack on our mind and spirit. We are left with a lifetime of residue by way of negative cognition, and survival mechanisms that get in the way of normal functioning.
My story is complex and ugly – it has layer upon layer of trauma that I am finally working on processing. You can read my story here. I spent over 20 years disassociated from the realities of my childhood. Last year my mind no longer allowed me to disconnect and forget.
To deal with my past, I see two different therapists, both once a week. I see one therapist at a local agency that is funded through federal, state, and local grants and donations and is specific to sexual abuse survivors. My other therapist also specializes in trauma, but additionally practices EMDR therapy which I am using to help reprocess negative thought patterns and to move my traumas properly through my brain. I also write this blog as a means of processing and healing; you can read the 7 reasons why I share my story here.
For me – therapy has not been easy. In actuality it is the hardest and most painful thing I have ever done willingly.
But it has been necessary and despite the darkness – I do see my progress, I do feel myself healing.
These are some hard truths about the healing process, healing is so messy, and hard – it hurts and it pushes the limits of personal resilience. It dredges up all the icky and then forces you to sit with it, process it, accept it. Healing from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to childhood sexual abuse is heavy, complicated and hard, hard work.
Still, it is worth it.
Now on to my reflections of a year in therapy:
1. Building a safe space with my counselor took a bit of time
For me, I wanted to dive in right away and just start talking about everything that was weighing me down, but this was the first time I had talked about my abuse, in detail, in over 20 years so logic was out the window and I didn’t feel safe. Within the first month of seeing my EMDR therapist I had one of my more memorable anxiety attacks – it was the evening following a session and I thought for sure she must think I was crazy and making all of this stuff up. There was just no feasible way someone could experience the horrors I have, let alone be so messed up they can’t get over it. I was convinced it was just the money that made her sit with me an hour a week and talk out my issues – not a real concern for my recovery. It was just a job to my therapist, not a passion, a field of service she had studied, had chosen. It took me a while to shake that illogical thought and settle my mind. I did talk it out in therapy with her (regardless of discomfort, we must be honest with our therapists) and she helped me recognize the subconscious negative beliefs I had about myself: “No one will believe me”, “No one cares about me or my feelings”. Thought processes hardwired into my brain from years of abuse. It wasn’t easy – but I worked through it.
2. It is more than sitting with a counselor for an hour a week talking about my troubles
Yes, I definitely do my fair share of crying and talking out my thoughts and feelings but my therapy sessions are far more than that. They are full of challenging questions from my counselors when they pick up on my negative thought patterns as I talk out both daily issues that cause me struggle and a childhood full of horror. This forces me to face head on the negative thoughts I have about myself that I don’t give credence to, despite their overwhelming effect on my life. My therapist specifically makes me say them out loud so that my adult, logical brain can hear how absurd and unsubstantiated these thoughts are. Not exactly easy. Also expect homework: journaling, practicing coping skills, self care activities, etc – and be prepared to be held accountable.
3. Proper coping skills are harder than I thought
Self care and coping skills are something that is focused on in great detail when it comes to trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The reality is, my past will never go away, and it will always take me a little bit extra to deal with reflexive extreme emotional responses to normal everyday interactions. So I have a tool chest of coping techniques and self-care ideas built over time. Things like a mental safe space I can go to, or essential oils in my home. Writing, listening to music, or cuddling my little girl. All things that I know will make me feel better when struggling; but when I am in the throws of a flashback, or a heightened emotional reaction – executing proper coping skills is a challenge. I’m getting there – but I am a work in progress. You will be too. This stuff isn’t second nature to us, we have to teach ourselves how to take care of ourselves – something that was never important to our protectors when we were children and therefore never became important to us.
4. Reliving the trauma is going to happen – so hold on
I remember making causal jokes about how I knew that it would get worse before it got better when I first began seeing my counselors – denial is strong when it comes to this part of therapy and recovery. Still, it makes sense to feel all of this, I am shouldering up to the reality of my past and processing it, which means feeling it, thinking about it, talking about it, remembering it – it all comes back. That is why coping and self-care skills are so important to practice. There is no way to sugar coat this and honestly, a year in I am still struggling with this part of the recovery process the most and I’ll tell you why next.
5. It cycles, which can be so exhausting it makes me want to quit sometimes
I have had more ups and downs, backwards and forwards in the last year than ever in my life. Healing doesn’t follow a straight path from beginning to end. Trauma is far to complex for that. Healing means cleaning out the mess in one proverbial room: feeling it, dealing with it, processing it – only to find that you have cluttered another room in the process that now needs attention – and so the cycle begins again as the cleaning process continues in each new area of your memory. There is no telling how intense or long term each cycle may be, and the breaks in between may cause anxiety of the next impending dark cloud. Who would have thought – PTSD from PTSD. When I look back and realize the cycles – I also realize my ability to get through them and come out the other side a more healed version of myself. In addition, I take a supplement for depression in a therapeutic dose to help with this – it is called SAMe and it is doing wondering for me. Read more about it and my experience with it here and here.
6. It has become the center of my life
How can it not. My mind is open, I am remembering, talking about it, connecting to it emotionally and processing it by way of homework, self-care, and coping. I know for me it often feels like it is the only identifying marker I have – the one thing that defines my past, present, and future right now. I am that story. Well, these feelings are inevitable, and they are completely normal. Learning to balance the reality of our trauma with a happy life may feel at times, impossible to do. I know I struggle with how to be happy and connected now that I realize the full weight of my childhood, and keeping everything from spilling all over is hard work but it is getting easier as I learn to cope and continue to heal.
7. It effects all the immediate people in my life
I try to protect them, to spare them the weight of my truth, of my pain – but it doesn’t work like that. They love me and they see my pain. I wasn’t prepared however, as we all transitioned into my recovery that they didn’t actually understand my struggles or my responses which caused frustration and miscommunication. There was resentment – my husband got really angry initially due to how my depression, anxiety, flashbacks, PTSD were all affecting our marriage. His anger was not at me, it was at his own powerlessness, at how unfair it was that something done to me as child had such an impact on his life as well. All understandable emotions that deserve recognition- still, it didn’t stop me from taking it personally before I became more aware of my own emotional responsibility. Invite loved ones to share a therapy session. Suggest they read some literature on the topic – I recommend: Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child – but most of all, share as much as you can, as you feel comfortable. Let them in. The love and support from those closest to you hugely impacts the healing process. We matter, our feelings matter, and our sadness is understandable and normal. It will feel foreign, but allowing your loved ones to love the real, vulnerable, completely broken down you will be very powerful as you rebuild yourself in true form and grow.
8. The five stages of grief are a guideline, not a timeline
As a survivor we all grieve a lot of things: broken childhoods, lost innocence, the betrayals of family and friends, any other elements of violence and abuse that happened. Which is exactly what needs to happen. They say when you grieve, you transverse five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. That has not been my experience. I am a year in and I still struggle with anger – I just don’t feel it, and for every new memory uncovered, every new nightmare or flashback, it feels like the stages start all over. I have bounced between bargaining, depression, and denial over the same flashback too many times to count, never once following the predetermined pattern. Sometimes I move right to acceptance of a given situation, other times I jump all over the place. That is okay. Healing is personal, our traumas are personal – and no two people respond to or heal from their traumas the same. Be fluid with yourself as you heal, there is no right or wrong way to process trauma and the scenery will change often as you move through your memories.
9. Acceptance is about more than just the acts of abuse – it’s about the lifetime of effects.
Maybe this one is just me but the hardest part of acceptance for me is realizing the lifetime of affects that I will live with. Memories will not go away, I will learn to cope. Flashbacks will likely not stop, I will learn to cope. The pain I feel over family betrayal may lessen but will always be, I will simply learn to cope. I have accepted my abuse and my family’s role, that is the reason I feel such intense pain so deep in my soul it tightens my throat, catches my breath and burns my eyes with tears. It’s the lifetime of aftermath that I struggle with. It isn’t easy living with the memories that I have and there is nothing I can do about it but accept it and cope. Something I am still working on, 12 months later …
. . .
Here are some things I have learned:
1. I am not alone and what I feel is normal
This has been the biggest lesson for me. I am not alone – we are not alone. Sadly, there is a lot of ugliness in this world and there are so many people like us dealing with childhoods full of horror, violence, and isolation. There are so many of us who overreact to the smallest things because they trigger deep seated negative thought processes, who struggle to manage flashbacks, who have to try a little bit harder to navigate stressful situations, who are completely and utterly overwhelmed with grief, pain, confusion, anger, loss, disbelief, rage, shame, embarrassment and a gamut of other emotions. We are not alone, and I have found immense comfort in the understanding and compassion I receive from other survivors as I connect and share.
2. Patience, compassion, and understanding with myself is vitally important
I don’t know about you but my abuse has hardwired me to view any and all challenges in life as obstacle to overcome and move past. Trauma doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t go away. We never get over it; we learn to integrate it into our lives. I have learned that I have to extend all of the emotional support to myself and my inner child that she did not receive and doesn’t believe she deserves. Being patient and understanding with myself as I am overwhelmed with emotions, memories, and anxiety isn’t easy. Even I am still working on this, but it is so important. In my case I have a lifetime of emotions to reconcile, decades of tears to cry and pain to feel. Patience and understanding is very hard, I just want this to be over with – but I am learning that in time, my compassion with myself is paying off. I deserve to be comforted, so do you.
3. I am taking back control of my life – and I am living!
I have lived my entire life in a state of disassociated hyper-vigilance. At nearly 40 I realize how much of my life has passed me by with no real connection to living. I grieve that loss often. But I cannot change it – I can only live the life I have left and that is what I intend to do – to the fullest. As I talk out and reconcile the realities of the childhood I have tried hard to forget, as I take on flashbacks, nightmares, and all the emotions and anxiety that goes with it, I realize I am taking back control of myself and my own spirit. It is no longer being guided by survival, it being guided by me and what I want out of my life. That is worth all of the discomfort and exhaustion. I am worth it.
4. I matter, my feelings matter, and people do care
A member of my family once told me that in a generation, what happened to me won’t matter to anyone. Sadly, that same family member and I share an abuser. She and I were brainwashed young to believe we didn’t matter, that no one would care about our story, about our pain. However, I have found that to be absolutely untrue. My husband and my children care, my closest friends care, the people who work at the agencies I have used care. I matter. My pain, my healing – it all matters. Once I truly accepted this – sharing became a little bit easier, and truly sitting with and feeling all of my emotions came a little easier as well.
5. I am stronger than I could ever imagine.
I often find myself crying to my therapist about how I have already endured the abuse and how unfair the healing process is as I relive all of it x1000 now that I am no longer emotionally or mentally disassociated. Trudging through the thick of it the last 12 months has been painful and ugly but when I look back at what I have accomplished, what I have already faced, processed, and moved past I realize from a 10,000 foot perspective I am leaps and bounds from where I was when I started – though it often feels the opposite. My ability to withstand, my ability to bounce back, to not let the disgusting underbelly of the human condition jade my views of goodness has been a testament to my inner strength. Don’t get me wrong, I see more than my share of dark days and I often wonder when they will finally lighten up, but I make it through each one of them. Sometimes all I do is survive, and that is okay. It is part of the healing process. I didn’t ask to be this strong – but I am glad I finally recognize my own strength, it helps keep me going. You will realize your own strength too.
. . .
These are my reflections from a year in therapy. These are the things I have learned and realized, things that have caused me distress and struggle and things that have spurred growth and realization. Despite all the hard, painful stuff – I am proud of my progress and I believe a year from now, my reflections will ever different.
I am excited about becoming a more whole, connected, and engaged mother, wife, friend, sister, niece, aunt, etc. I wouldn’t change anything regarding my recovery and I encourage anyone reading this to take the necessary steps towards healing. We deserve to be happy, to release the weight of shame we carry that is not ours to bear.
We deserve to heal.
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